Nov 21, 2017 - Ancestry

Six Things to Serve Your Neanderthal Guest for Thanksgiving

By Erica Bellman, Ancestry Content Writer

Let’s imagine that, in lieu of your Aunt Betsy from Seattle, an ancient Neanderthal woman is coming to your house for Thanksgiving this year. Hide the china and practice your grunting, right? Well, maybe not.

Though their table manners might be lacking, the popular “caveman” stereotype is more myth than fact. Neanderthals were actually quite similar to modern humans and exhibited complex social behaviors.

“As a culture, we tend to think of Neanderthals as these brutish, bent-over, hairy individuals—a bit more ape-like than us. But there’s no evidence that supports that idea,” said Professor Tim Weaver, an anthropologist at UC Davis whose research focuses on human evolution. “I think the stereotype that’s permeated our popular culture stems from old reconstructions of the Neanderthals dating back to the early 20th century. As far as we can tell from their anatomy, genetics, and behavioral and cultural remains, Neanderthals were very similar to modern humans.”

More about your Neanderthal guest
  • She probably lives in a cave—so try to be sensitive if she’s not up on the latest in politics and pop culture.
  • Neanderthals were thought to be quite social. Your guest likely has a nuclear family and a close-knit community of hunter-gatherers, so be sure to ask about her kids, parents, and friends.
  • Her physical traits may include a heavier brow, an oval-shaped skull, and a larger-than-average nose (try not to stare).
  • She’s probably on the stockier and more muscular side, so make sure her seat comfortably accommodates her stature.
  • Based on evidence that Neanderthals possessed sophisticated toolmaking skills, your guest may be able to handily carve up the turkey or roast using a stone or bone instrument.
  • She may or may not be able to communicate with you verbally[5] , so be prepared to use another means of conversing.
  • Be sure to ask about her neighborhood. Neanderthals were intimately in touch with their surroundings, harvesting from the land to survive. She’ll be an expert on the best hikes and outdoor activities in her homeland.

Here’s what we know of our human cousins.

The Neanderthals were our closest extinct relatives who lived throughout Eurasia 200,000 to 40,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene Epoch. Over this time glaciers retreated and advanced, and once-abundant food sources became scarce.

Before anatomically modern humans (that’s us) left Africa, the ancestors of the Neanderthals ventured into Eurasia. Ultimately, the Neanderthals would inhabit[1] a vast expanse of land stretching from Portugal to western Siberia and from northern Europe to Israel and Iraq. The Neanderthals intermixed with modern humans emerged from Africa about 60,000 years ago, giving us both evolutionary advantages (like the functioning of our immune systems[2]) and some less-favorable variants, such as susceptibility to certain allergies, depression, and blood clots.

Some History

For millennia Neanderthals thrived, but eventually they went extinct, and scientists aren’t entirely sure why. Some theorize that migration and random species drift[3] (a mechanism of evolution that produces random, rather than selection-driven, genetic changes in a population) caused the disappearance of the Neanderthals, while others blame dietary insufficiencies[4] caused by changing ecological and climatic conditions. Perhaps the most popular explanation for the disappearance was competition with modern humans for resources.

But one thing is for certain: the Neanderthals did intermix with modern humans before their demise, so segments of their DNA live on in many of us today. Unless you’re from Sub-Saharan Africa, your DNA reflects somewhere between one percent and four percent Neanderthal ancestry.

Time to Eat

Now, we’ll get to the main course of this post: what to serve your guest for Thanksgiving dinner. Contrary to popular belief, Neanderthals were not all die-hard carnivores, so it’s best to avoid offending your guest with a plethora of meat dishes. Rather, our ancient relatives adapted their diets to match the resources that were readily available and most abundant in nutrients, so be sure to ask where exactly she is from. Your Neanderthal guest may also be particular about what she will and won’t eat. “From what we know from the archaeological record and the bones found at Neanderthal sites, they seemed to focus more on large mammals rather than small game like rabbits. The breadth of their diets seems to have been narrower than those of modern humans,” said Professor Weaver.

Two Neanderthal individuals found in a cave in El Sidrón, Spain appeared to have consumed little to no meat. Traces of pine nuts, moss, tree barks, and mushrooms were found in this pair’s dental plaques, suggesting a mostly vegetarian diet (err, except for the evidence of cannibalism found in their cave…but we digress). After studying the dental plaques of another Neanderthal found in Spy, Belgium, scientists concluded[6] that the individual ate mostly meat, as well as some mushrooms. Woolly rhino or wild sheep ragout, anyone? The bones of mammoths, reindeer, and horses were also found in the Spy cave. Other research[7] reports that Neanderthals living on the Gibraltar coast may have eaten various mollusks, seals, and even dolphins. In summary, Neanderthals ate what was most readily available and nutrient-dense in their immediate surroundings; they adapted their diets[8] to meet the resources provided by their environments.

Enjoy connecting with your Neanderthal guest and learning about some of the traits you might have in common. By the end of the meal, we predict you and your other relatives will be competing to see who had the good fortune of acquiring the most Neanderthal DNA.

Curated Menu
  • Sauteéd Greens with Pine Nuts and Raisins. Opt for wild edible greens like dandelion and chicories. High in fatty acids and calorically rich, pine nuts also contain lutein, a carotenoid that may help prevent eye disease.
  • Wild Mushroom and Leek Stuffing. If your guest is from Spain, she’s likely fond of a variety of mushrooms. High in dietary fiber, B vitamins, and minerals, they’re fundamental to her diet. Bonus points if you forage for them yourself.
  • A Crown Roast of Lamb. Rather than turkey, opt for this earthy, gamey alternative. Your guest will appreciate the simple preparation and ample protein. If lamb isn’t available, your guest may also enjoy venison or reindeer.
  • Baked Clams with Bacon and Garlic. Your guest may hail from a coastal region. She’d appreciate these flavorful bivalves, oven-roasted with savory bacon and spices.
  • Miner’s Lettuce Salad. Since it’s still unclear whether all Neanderthals were as adept at controlling fire as their human relatives[9], we’re also including a raw option. This version has fresh Miner’s lettuce, a wild edible that tastes like a cross between watercress and spinach.
  • Wild Mushroom Stew. End your meal with a cup of wild mushroom stew to keep your guest warm for her journey home.
Erica Bellman is a Ancestry Content Writer at 23andMe. She writes content for 23andMe’s Ancestry product, surfacing stories that enable customers to better understand their unique results. As a journalist, Erica has interviewed performance artists, indie rock bands, and backcountry skiers. Her favorite author is Haruki Murakami. 

[1] Fabre V et al. (2009). “Genetic evidence of geographical groups among Neanderthals.” PLoS One. 4(4):e5151.

[2] Callaway E. (2011). “Ancient DNA reveals secrets of human history.” Nature. 476(7359):136-7.

[3] Kolodny O et al. (2017). “A parsimonious neutral model suggests Neanderthal replacement was determined by migration and random species drift.” Nat Commun. 8(1):1040.

[4] El Zaatari S et al. (2016). “Neandertal versus Modern Human Dietary Responses to Climatic Fluctuations.” PLoS One. 11(4):e0153277.

[5] D’Anastasio R et al. (2013). “Micro-biomechanics of the Kebara 2 hyoid and its implications for speech in Neanderthals.” PLoS One. 8(12):e82261.

[6] Weyrich LS et al. (2017). “Neanderthal behaviour, diet, and disease inferred from ancient DNA in dental calculus.” Nature. 544(7650):357-361.

[7] Stringer CB et al. (2008). “Neanderthal exploitation of marine mammals in Gibraltar.” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 105(38):14319-24.

[8] El Zaatari S et al. (2016). “Neandertal versus Modern Human Dietary Responses to Climatic Fluctuations.” PLoS One. 11(4):e0153277.

[9] Gowlett JA. (2016). “The discovery of fire by humans: a long and convoluted process.” Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 371(1696).

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