Climatic variability and plant food distribution in Pleistocene Europe: Implications for Neanderthal diet and subsistence

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Contrary to their cold-adapted image, Neanderthals inhabited Pleistocene Europe during a time of great climatic fluctuation with temperatures ranging from as warm as present-day during the last interglacial to as cold as those of the last glacial maximum. Cold-adapted Neanderthals are similarly most often associated with the exploitation of large mammals who are themselves cold-adapted (mammoth, bison, reindeer, etc.). Cold, high-latitude environments are typically seen as lacking in plants generally and in plant foods in particular. Plant foods are therefore usually ignored and Neanderthals are increasingly being viewed as top carnivores who derived the vast majority of their diet from meat. Support for this hypothesis comes largely from stable isotope analysis which tracks only the protein portion of the diet. Diets high in lean meat largely fulfill micronutrient needs but can pose a problem at the macronutrient level. Lean meat can compose no more than 35% of dietary energy before a protein ceiling is reached. Exceeding the protein ceiling can have detrimental physiological effects on the individual. Neanderthals would have needed energy from alternative sources, particularly when animals are fat-depleted and lean meat intake is high. Underground storage organs (USOs) of plants offer one such source, concentrating carbohydrates and energy. USOs could also provide an important seasonal energy source since they are at their maximum energy storage in late fall/winter. Although Paleolithic sites are increasingly yielding plant remains, their presence is rare and they are often given only passing mention in Neanderthal dietary reconstructions. The complexity and number of potential wild plant foods, however, defies easy discussion. Native European wild edible plants with starchy USOs would have been potentially available throughout the Neanderthal range, even during the coldest periods of the Late Pleistocene.