A new study, ‘Microfossils in calculus demonstrate consumption of plants and cooked foods in Neanderthal diets‘, got a brief writeup in Scientific American today under the title,
Fossilized food stuck in Neandertal teeth indicates plant-rich diet‘. I haven’t seen the inevitable spin-off articles proclaiming the death of the paleo diet, but I can hear the echoes of vegans clickity-clacking away on their keyboards this very moment. Melissa McEwen’s brain is apparently wired directly into the internet and she’d already written that this study is convincing, but doesn’t really offer anything new before I’d finished two paragraphs. By the time I got distracted and returned to writing this, Richard Nikoley had also mentioned it and referenced a post from two years ago bolstering his commitment to remaining nonplussed by the onslaught of non-news. On most days, that would leave me only to ponder whether Newton or Leibniz first discovered microfossils in calculus. Not today my friends!

Without further ado, it is with extreme excitement that I release my contribution to this discussion by way of an alternative hypothesis. It is currently in-press for the Journal of Applied Paleonthropological Hyperbole.


The nature and causes of the disappearance of Neanderthals and their apparent replacement by modern humans are subjects of considerable debate. Many researchers have proposed biologically or technologically mediated dietary differences between the two groups as one of the fundamental causes of Neanderthal disappearance. Some scenarios have focused on the apparent lack of plant foods in Neanderthal diets. Here we report direct evidence for Neanderthal consumption of a variety of plant foods, in the form of phytoliths and starch grains recovered from dental calculus of Neanderthal skeletons. Some of the plants are typical of recent modern human diets, including legumes, and grass seeds (Triticeae), whereas others are known to be edible but are not heavily used today. Many of the grass seed starches showed damage that is a distinctive marker of cooking. Our results indicate that in both warm eastern Mediterranean and cold northwestern European climates, and across their latitudinal range, Neanderthals made use of the diverse plant foods available in their local environment and transformed them into more easily digestible foodstuffs in part through cooking them, suggesting that the extinction of Homo neanderthalensis may have been caused by introduction of food sources sufficiently deleterious to individual health.

The obvious question then becomes: How long do we have to wait before proclaiming Neanderthals were vegans? Why would Neanderthals continue to eat substances that were toxic?

For that, we need look no further than modern humans. When ingested items provide an observable short-term benefit in terms of calories, they are assumed to be beneficial. When the negative effects of toxic inputs are cumulative over a period of weeks, months, or years, individuals are incapable of isolating the confounding variables. This is further complicated by not being limited to dietary inputs, but also those of microbial, genetic, or other environmental factors such as shortages or overages of vitamins, minerals, and myriad chemical compounds. This problem has not been solved with modern scientific methods, and it is reasonable to assume that Neanderthals were less capable of determining cause and effect during the Pleistocene.

When the introduction of toxins does not manifest with sufficiently deleterious symptoms for a duration in excess of nine months in females, and nine seconds in males, significant adaptive pressure may not be placed on reproduction for that individual. Thus, the combination of an inability to disambiguate dietary toxins across a relevant period of time with the lack of strong selection pressure in delayed onset cumulative symptoms may result in both poor health and reproductive success, especially in the short-term. However, over time, the inability to recognize the delayed onset cumulative symptoms of the introduction of dietary toxins may lead to an increase in the consumption of the toxic sources. While a disconnect in the causal relationship between dietary input and its negative health outcomes persists, we may see a paradoxical increase in the consumption of such toxins which are believed to be beneficial. As consumption spreads through a population, the negative health consequences would come earlier in life, and with more frequency. Since we have no reason to assume adaptation in all cases (to the contrary, we must assume non-adaptation as the null hypothesis), it is possible that the paradoxical increase in consumption lead to unsustainable population levels within the species.

We are certain of two points: Neanderthals ate grains, and Neanderthals are extinct. To date, there is a complete lack of evidentiary support for hypotheses involving any benefits to the introduction of grains into the Neanderthal diet. Thus, we find all hypotheses of our colleagues that indicate grain consumption provided any survival or reproductive benefits to Neanderthals to be strange and unfounded. Since Homo neanderthalensis is extinct, and the deleterious effects of grain consumption can still be seen in the modern Homo lineage, it is more reasonable to conclude that increased consumption of grains in the Neanderthal diet played a role in their extinction.


Grain consumption may result in death and subsequent fossilization of you and your species. Further research is required.


This research was funded by evolvify.com in connection with the upcoming book, ‘The Extinction Diet: How to Lose Weight and Save the Planet Through Individual Death and Species Extinction’.

  1. Author
    @melissamcewen 14 years ago

    I don't have time to look into this, but it would be interesting to pull data from more northerly (AKA carnivorous) neanderthal populations and compare markers like bone density. Also, I'd be curious to know estimated population densities. It's possible this area was the "cradle of civilization" because it allowed populations to overshoot carrying capacity= having to rely on marginal foodstuffs= incentive to grow them.

    I don't think reporters cracking jokes about chili with beans have any idea how shitty and marginal these foods were. They were probably like cardboard mixed with granite slurry, AKA not something you eat unless you have to. Grains may or may not cause problems, but they are a sign perhaps of a less than optimal survival situation. Also interesting is that some neanderthals, I'm not sure if these ones, have evidence of serious arthritis.

    I don't think it caused their extinction since during that time period there is evidence that humans were eating the same thing. That's precisely why the study was so interesting, because it showed they ate similar diets.

    • David Csonka 14 years ago

      You know, based on the effort-based increase to palatability theory, where food is perceived to be more tasty based on the amount of effort taken to procure or prepare the food, there might be a point where granite slurry would actually taste good. Somebody needs to test this,

  2. David Csonka 14 years ago

    The probably would have lived longer than 40 years if they ate more heart healthy whole grains and less artery clogging red meat! Oh, and if your journal article submission isn't peer reviewed, or if you don't currently have academic tenure, or if you're just some out of work blogger typing away on a laptop on your boat, then it doesn't count.

    There, I think I've got any potential vegetarian opposition to your theory covered.

    • Andrew 14 years ago

      To be fair, we should probably look into the Neanderthal's moral burden undertaken upon killing who knows how many heirloom crops. That sounds like a bizarroland argument, but keep in mind that we're analyzing the question from the inextricably doomed context of a post-Narnian hierarchical power dominance structure. Not only that, but going back in time a couple million years results in a decrease in the time between the great evolutionary split between cereal grasses and the Homo lineage. Within the Paleolithic construct, we may discover that ancestral wheat experienced a level of sentience that negated the life energy of Neanderthals to the point of extinction. Of course, it's hard to say because we don't know if Link was able to unite all three elements of the Triforce before Gandalf smurfed Khan on the 3rd moon of Endor.

      As usual, further research is required.

      • Victoria 14 years ago

        Thanks… the line 'inextricably doomed context of a post-Narnian hierarchical power dominance structure' made me spew coffee out my nose… Luckily my mouth was empty when I reached 'Link was able to unite all three elements of the Triforce before Gandalf smurfed Khan on the 3rd moon of Endor'.

      • Don Matesz 14 years ago


        Seriously, I nominate you for a Ignoble Peace Prize for your outstanding work in neofactual postmodern revisionist anthropology.

    • Kathi 13 years ago

      'heart healthy' grains, 'artery clogging' red meat? This is opposition? This is laughable. Do some more reading

      • Andrew 13 years ago

        Indeed! David was joking around. If he believed in eating grains or not eating meat, I'd ban him from commenting. 🙂

  3. Cheryl 14 years ago

    Hmm. I could have sworn I read an article not too long ago claiming that Ozzy Osbourne was a Neanderthal. Then again, he IS a fossil so I suppose they are still extinct.

    This was it: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=

    • Andrew 14 years ago

      Now, if we can only get a pinch of Satan's blood to decide once and for all whether Ozzy is in fact "The Prince of Darkness". Conversely, if we know that Ozzy is "The Prince of Darkness", we could test to see if Dick Cheney is his biological father, and thus, the devil incarnate.

      Oh science… I love you so.

  4. Matt Ranlett 14 years ago

    Um – this is pretty far fetched and almost completely unconvincing.

    First – the presence of starch in a diet doesn't mean that the creature which ate the starch was poisoned by it. It was probably sustained quite handily by it. It may not have been an optimal food source in terms of macro and micro nutrients, but it was most likely very far from lethal. Plants are part of an omnivore's diet, are easier to find, and run away a lot more slowly!

    Second – Neanderthal man is not the direct ancestor of modern man. They were either a subspecies or a competitive species of genus Homo. Check Wikipedia for more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neanderthal. It would be a fallacy to draw definitive conclusions from the fate of that species to our own. I'm pretty sure however, that our ancestors also ate conveniently available plants and continue to do so to this day.

    Third – while you're likely to get yourself wrapped into some great arguments with vegetarians, I'm willing to bet that both camps will be able to pile up a mountain of scientific evidence to support their side's claims. The jury is still out on this one.

    I am not a scientist. I have lived for over a year as a vegetarian. It helped me lose 40 pounds. I have lived for nearly a year on the paleo diet. It helped me lose another 40 pounds. I'm in much better shape than I was, my blood chemistry is great, and I'm happy and healthy. I have walked in both sets of shoes and make most of my observations from that vantage point.

    • Andrew 14 years ago

      Wait… so are you saying the Journal of Applied Paleoanthropological Hyperbole shouldn't publish my work? That doesn't bode well for my follow-up paper 'The epigenetics of bird consumption in relation to human flight' slated for March publication in the European Journal of Anti-Gravity Research.

      • David Csonka 14 years ago

        I'm hoping the planned paper will finally put to rest the recurring issue with the macronutrient ratios of European vs. African swallows.

        • Andrew 14 years ago

          This will be hotly contested as the African Journal of Anti-Gravity Research declined to publish the piece because of a rumor that I weigh the same as a duck.

          • David Csonka 13 years ago

            You're obviously a witch, though possibly the brightest witch of your age.

  5. Emily 14 years ago

    Glorious Dr. BG did a similar-themed post back in July – http://drbganimalpharm.blogspot.com/2010/07/middl

    • Andrew 14 years ago

      Oh geez. Does that mean I have to start taking my tongue-in-cheek hypothesis seriously?

      • Eegah! 14 years ago

        Yes, it does.

        I believe that the Tyrannosaurus rex lived on a meat only diet, the Tyrannosaurus rex is extinct.* Lack of grain consumption clearly played a role in the extinction of that particular species. Surely a slap in the face for the Paleo community who tend to the blame almost every evil on refined flours, sugars or vegetable oils, not to mention the much maligned 'heart healthy' whole grains. Damn, we might as well all become vegans!

        • Eegah! 14 years ago

          Of course, someone will eventually find a fossilised grain lodged between the fossilised teeth of an equally fossilised Tyrannosaurus rex, and then there will much talk of how its 'healthy balanced' diet, which will undermine the exclusively carnivourous Cretaceo(us) community which was created by refugees from the Paleo community who had been shown to be so misguided. Nonetheless, the study cited does highlight that one, some or all Neanderthals, did not floss either on one occassion or continuously. Therefore is it not more reasonable to conclude that lack of continual flossing by Neanderthals played a role in their extinction, also? And quite possibly that same lack of continual flossing may, at some future date, be shown to played a pivotal role in extinction of the Tyrannosaurus rex? Now then, is there a future for the Cretaceo Diet?

          * – I know, because Wikipedia, although not Wikileaks, says so.

          • Andrew 14 years ago

            Sounds reasonable. I've long been a believer in a transcendent wisdom inherent when "9 out of 10 dentists agree" on something.

          • Eegah! 14 years ago

            I would like to know why the other dentist disagrees! Does he/she know something we're not allowed to know?

            Keep up the great work!

          • Dave Doolin 14 years ago

            Scientists studies show that T Rex only ate dead, rotten meat because it could not run fast enough to catch fresh, tasty meat because T Rex is bigger than Elephant and everyone knows Elephant don't run fast.

            Why T Rex is shaped like Road Runner instead of Water Tank On Barely Mobile Tree Trunks was not discussed.

            In my opinion, which is worthless as I never made tenure (thus my peer-reviewed articles don't count), Scientists have not considered The Rule of Bear. To wit: I don't need to run faster than the bear. I just need to run faster than *you*. Just how fast did Brachiosaurus run anyway?

            Then there is possible confusion between "acceleration" and "maximum velocity." The average bicycle is faster off the red light than the average car. For about 10 feet.

  6. mfgilbert 14 years ago

    my faith in science is renewed!

  7. Don Matesz 14 years ago

    Tongue in cheek aside, your post does illustrate how it appears that some scientists and a large contigent of laypeople, particularly vegetarians, seem to be looking for even the slimmest of evidence to support their allegiance to hearthealthywholegrains as the 'bread of life.' None seem capable of looking at this from the opposite perspective as you have, which is not at all absurd. Given that previous evidence tended to indicate that Neanderthals ate almost exclusively meat, this would indicate a species even less capable of tolerating plant toxins than Cro Magnon.

    As an analogy, you can imagine what would happen to lions or tigers if they suddenly ran out of meat and took to eating grass seeds. The presence of grain residues in their teeth may simply indicate a carnivorous species struggling for survival in a game-poor environment. Perhaps plant toxins did not kill them, but not having meat did, and the evidence of them eating plant foods is only a sign that they were running out of the food to which they were adapted. Lack of meat killed them, the consumption of plant toxins only added insult to injury.

    • David Csonka 13 years ago

      Re: lions and tigers eating grass – I recall reading about a vegan forum discussion in "The Vegetarian Myth" where the members discussed the merits of fencing off the African Serengeti and allowing the big cats to live off of grass and plants. Since they had witnessed their house cat eating grass on occasion, it was evidence that cats like and prefer to eat plants.

      I wish I had more than two hands to face palm with, two just weren't enough.

    • Mike Fout 13 years ago

      I was thinking along the same lines. I have to wonder did eating grains lead to their extinction; or were grains, being a food of starvation when environmental changes were affecting a food supply, consumed because there wasn't a better source of meat?

      Anyone who has been on a survival trek or through a survival school (Military, etc.) will tell you after a few days of not eating, the tree bark starts to look appetizing, and you will eat just about ANYTHING to keep you going. It is only logical to assume that grains were a last ditch effort at sustenance.

      I just wish I had enough coffee this morning to be as funny as the rest of the comments. I almost choked on my Mello Joy.

  8. Tyler Tervooren 14 years ago

    This is my favorite comment thread of all time. Bookmark'd!

  9. Author
    Steve Aquarios 11 years ago

    The Neanderthals were probably vegetarian similar to mountain gorillas and were out evolved by the more cunning and intelligent (conventionaly speaking) Homo Sapiens who are more similar to chimps.

  10. Author
    Guillaume Belanger 11 years ago

    Given what we already know about this, I have no doubts that a shift to a grain-based diet could very well have helped if not caused the disappearance of the Neanderthals. And I suppose that since this happened over at least 100 ky, the Cro-magnons, i.e., us, have at most another 60 ky before disappearance as well, even though I'm sure this will happen sooner thanks to all those delicious soft drinks, juices and deserts we are addicted to and love so much. Or do you think that those of us who don't eat simple or starchy carbs will survive while the rest of the population will die off of the various degenerative diseases that are currently already claiming the lives of 90% of the population in western countries?

  11. Author
    Scot Lyf 10 years ago

    I find grains are good food,.. variable per person, processed as suitable/appropriate for how it's consumed, frequency as ones body prudently desires. Same goes for dairy foods,.. same goes for all fundamental human historical-to-present foods.
    Your body reveals by response.

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