Neanderthals ate their greens

It just goes to show what can happen if you don’t brush your teeth: some anthropologist can tip up thousands of years later and start making disparaging remarks about your diet.

A study of Neanderthal teeth from Iraq and Belgium has indicated that they didn’t, as previously believed, have a diet consisting almost entirely of meat.

Scientists from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington have found specks of fossilised vegetable matter – some of it cooked – between the teeth, indicating that they were actually pretty good about getting their five a day.

Previous chemical analysis of Neanderthal bones had indicated that their diet was very high in protein – which to butch types like paleontologists looked like evidence of an exclusive diet of meat.

But the newly-found gunk on their teeth indicates that much of this protein may have come from a vegetable source. Indeed, the Neanderthals seem to have been really quite Delia when it comes to dinnertime. The researchers found scraps of date palms, seeds, peas and beans, as well as boiled barley, sorghum and cooked waterlilies.

The discovery is a bit of a blow for those scientists who theorised that the Neanderthals died out because they ran out of large animals to hunt. Instead, it now looks as if they were perfectly happy – and well-nourished – with a veggie dinner.

Rather depressingly for those of us that still haven’t got over cooking Christmas dinner, the team reckons the new evidence may indicate that Neanderthal duties may have been divided on gender

Their justification for this appears to be that women always get landed with the boring jobs, and that this could have been the case for Neanderthals too.

“In early human groups, women typically collected plants and turned them into food while men hunted,” study leader Dolores Piperno told the Guardian.

“To us, and it is just a suggestion, this brings up the possibility that there was some sexual division of labour in the Neanderthals and that is something most people did not think existed.”

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.