Researchers studying Neanderthal teeth realize that the 'Paleo diet' isn't what we thought

Vegetarian Neanderthals.
(Image credit: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

When you picture a Neanderthal, you probably think of a hairy caveman swinging around a woolly mammoth femur as a club. But researchers studying the eating habits of the ancient primates have found that there wasn't a one-size-fits-all diet for the species — and some individuals were even, it seems, vegetarians.

The scientists reached their conclusions by collecting the DNA of petrified colonies of microbes that once nestled in Neanderthals' teeth:

By harvesting and sequencing that DNA, [the University of Adelaide's Laura] Weyrich has shown that there was no such thing as a typical Neanderthal diet. One individual from Spy cave in Belgium mostly ate meat like woolly rhinoceros and wild sheep, as well as some edible mushrooms. But two individuals who lived in El Sidrón cave in Spain seemed to be entirely vegetarian. The team couldn't find any traces of meat in their diet, which consisted of mushrooms, pine nuts, tree bark, and moss. The Belgian Neanderthals hunted; the Spanish ones foraged."When people talk about the Paleo diet, that's not paleo, that's just non-carb," Weyrich says. "The true paleo diet is eating whatever's out there in the environment." [The Atlantic]

The researchers also found that some Neanderthals even seemed to know how to use healing herbs and plants to treat their ailments. The teeth of one individual contained a parasite that causes diarrhea, but it also contained a mold that produces penicillin and a bark that works as a painkiller.

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"We need to revamp the view of Neanderthals as these meat-eating, club-toting cavemen," said Weyrich. "They had a very good understanding of what foods were available to them."

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Jeva Lange

Jeva Lange was the executive editor at She formerly served as The Week's deputy editor and culture critic. She is also a contributor to Screen Slate, and her writing has appeared in The New York Daily News, The Awl, Vice, and Gothamist, among other publications. Jeva lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.