Tooth enamel reveals information on the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of Neanderthals.

An intriguing look at how Neanderthals and other humans in western Europe hunted and ate has been revealed by a global team of researchers led by the University of Southampton.

The researchers analyzed synthetic properties locked inside tooth finishes to sort out how pre-memorable individuals lived off the land around the Almonda Cavern framework, close to Torres Novas in focal Portugal, very nearly a long time ago.

According to their findings, which were published in the journal PNAS, Neanderthals in the area hunted fairly large animals over large areas, whereas humans in the same area tens of thousands of years later relied on smaller animals in a smaller area.

Strontium isotopes in rocks slowly change over millions of years as a result of radioactive cycles. This indicates that they differ from location to location based on the age of the underlying geology. As rocks climate, the isotopic ‘fingerprints’ are passed into plants by means of silt and advance along the well-established pecking order, eventually passing into tooth lacquer.

“This research demonstrates how much science has changed our understanding of archaeology over the last decade. Previously, we could only deduce the lives and habits of former humans from traces on their bones or the items they used. We may now begin to recreate individual life histories, dating back to the Neanderthals, using the chemistry of bones and teeth.”

Co-author, Professor Alistair Pike of the University of Southampton, 

In this study, archaeologists used a laser to take thousands of individual strontium isotope measurements along the growth of a tooth crown. Two Neanderthals, approximately 95,000 years old, and a more recent human, approximately 13,000 years ago, during the Magdalenian period, served as specimens.

Isotopes in the tooth enamel of animals found in the cave system were also examined by the researchers. They also measured oxygen isotopes, which change seasonally from summer to winter, alongside strontium. Thanks to this, they were able to determine not only where the animals roamed across the landscape but also when they were available for hunting.

A portion of the mandible of an extinct species of rhinoceros that Neanderthals hunted throughout the Almonda Caves landscape in Portugal According to isotopic analysis, rhinoceroses could be found within 30 kilometers of the caves at all times. Credit: José Paulo Ruas

The team demonstrated that the Neanderthals, who were looking for big animals, could have hunted wild goats in the summer. However, horses, red deer, and an extinct rhinoceros could be found all year round within 30 kilometers of the cave. The Magdalenian person lived in a different way, moving about 20 kilometers per season from the Almonda caves to the Tagus River banks and eating rabbits, red deer, wild goats, and freshwater fish.

The two distinct human groups’ territories were approximated by the researchers, and the resulting findings were divergent. The Magdalenian people lived on a much smaller area of about 300 km2, whereas the Neanderthals lived over approximately 600 km2.

“Tooth enamel forms incrementally and so represents a time series that records the geological origin of the food an individual ate,” said lead author Dr. Bethan Linscott, who conducted the research while he was at the University of Southampton and now works at the University of Oxford.

“During the two or three years it takes for the enamel to form, we can measure the variation of strontium isotopes using laser ablation. We were able to map the movements of the Neanderthal and Magdalenian individuals by comparing the strontium isotopes in the teeth to sediments collected at various locations in the region. Because of the highly variable geology surrounding the Almonda caves, it is possible to observe movement of just a few kilometers.”

Co-creator Teacher Alistair Pike of the College of Southampton, who directed the exploration, said, “This study shows exactly how much science has changed how we might interpret paleontology in the previous ten years. Previously, the only information we had about the lives and actions of past people was what we could deduce from the marks on their bones or from the objects they used. We can now begin to reconstruct individual life histories, even back to the Neanderthals, by utilizing the chemistry of bones and teeth.”

“The difference in the size of the territory between the Neanderthal and Magdalenian individuals is probably related to population density,” stated co-author Professor Joo Zilho of the University of Lisbon, who led the excavation of the Almonda caves. Neanderthals were able to target large prey species like horses without encountering rival groups because their population was relatively small. “Human groups had moved down the food chain to occupy smaller territories, hunting primarily rabbits and catching fish on a seasonal basis by the Magdalenian period due to an increase in population density.”

The paper “Remaking Center and Upper Paleolithic Human Versatility in Portuguese Estremadura through Laser Removal and Strontium Isotope Examination” is distributed in the journal PNAS.

More information: Bethan Linscott et al, Reconstructing Middle and Upper Paleolithic human mobility in Portuguese Estremadura through laser ablation strontium isotope analysis, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2023). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2204501120

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