"I began this study with the hopes of exploring any possible variation in Neanderthal plant consumption."
The skeleton Henry studied was discovered in the 1950s at the cave site of Shanidar, in the Zāgros Mountains of northeastern Iraq (see map of Iraq).
Dubbed Shanidar III, the skeleton is that of a male possibly in his 40s and includes four teeth and several bone fragments.
The discoverers of the Shanidar III, Ralph and Rose Solecki, sampled the soil around the skeletons for pollen. Analyses revealed elevated levels of pollen grains of unusual plants around one of the skeletons.
"The Soleckis interpreted this as strong evidence for the dietary use of plants, and even took it a step further and argued that this was evidence of intentional burial with flowers as grave goods," Henry said.
This prompted Henry to sample the teeth of Shanidar III in 2007.
Three of the teeth had excellent preserved plaque that contained microscopic fossils of plant material, she explained.
"We know that this individual ate a variety of plants, including grass seeds, more commonly called grains today," Henry said.
What Did Neandertals Eat?
Henry cautions that Shanidar III is only one fossil and does not provide enough evidence to make conclusive statements about the entirety of the Neandertal diet.
"The finding suggests that characterizing Neanderthals as obligate meat-eaters may be wrong, but there is still a lot more work to be done on this issue," Henry said.
Matt Sponheimer is a researcher at the University of Colorado in Boulder who was not involved with this study.
In a 2006 study published in the journal Science, he showed that the carbon isotopes preserved in the teeth of early human ancestors were evidence of a varied diet.
Henry's method provides new data that approach the issue from a new angle, he said.
But the technique, according to Sponheimer, does not indicate whether an individual Neandertal ate plants once or a thousand times.
It also doesn't show the relative proportions of a food type in the individual's diet.
"Thus it is but one inherently limited technique of paleodietary reconstruction among many," he said.
"By using a variety of techniques in tandem, we are going to get a much more realistic picture of paleodiets."
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