Universiteit Leiden

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Evaluating the dietary micro-remain record in dental calculus

And its application in deciphering hominin diets in palaeolithic eurasia

Robert Power
30 November 2016
The dissertation in the Leiden Repository

Big game diets

Palaeoanthropologists have proposed that Neanderthals, the Middle Palaeolithic hominin occupant of Eurasia, differed from modern human relatives by having specialised diets focused on big game. A narrow dietary niche at the top of the terrestrial food chain is inherently prone to instability, potentially contributing to extinction of the Neanderthals. However, limitations in detecting plant consumption imply that scientists are unaware of much of Neanderthal diet. My dissertation revises the role of plants in Neanderthal subsistence using dental calculus, a material that is recognised to contain food traces, as a source of dietary data.

Broad range of diets

To do this I assessed how accurately calculus records diet, by testing it with a variety of techniques on a population of chimpanzees with decades of documented dietary history. Then, my dissertation examined if it is possible to explore the resilience of the Neanderthal dietary niche by assessing for changes in plant use over time. Comparing diets from different habitats, data suggests a broad range of diets on the Mediterranean rim and in the cooler areas of the Neanderthal range. Surprisingly, the study found no evidence of changes in plant dietary breadth despite variation in environments. This stability implies a deeply resilient ecological niche across their range.