Could Neanderthals have died out in part because they didn’t enjoy their carrots and turnips?Geneticists at Pennsylvania State University researched the DNA of our prehistoric cousins and found Neanderthals lacked certain genes involved in eating that may have played a small part in their extinction.
Their DNA also lacked a protein that is linked to large powerful jaws, making it extremely difficult to chew tough, raw food.
Neanderthals — as well as Denisovans, another extinct hominid species — would have had difficulty digesting the starches in tubers (like carrots and turnips) and grass grains (like wheat and barley), a source of valuable energy in the Eurasian landscape over 25,000 years ago.
Modern humans like us digest starches while we chew because of six copies of genes that release enzymes into our saliva. Neanderthals and Denisovans had only two copies of those genes.
The study, published in the Journal of Evolution, revealed a few more insights into the diets of our extinct cousins, including that Neanderthals were most likely lactose intolerant.
Archaeologists have long speculated that raw foods composed a larger percentage of their diet than humans — but as it turns out, Neanderthals would have been just as likely to cook their meat and vegetables to make it easier to eat.
These kinds of stories are seductive because they point to how a simple change in the order of things might have led to a big difference in how the history of life unfolded.
But there is a skeptic buried in me that wonders how significant this difference really could have been inasmuch as the Neanderthals survived brilliantly for 250,000 years? Maybe it was the marginal advantage of early modern humans with their somewhat more powerful survival that led to early modern humans planting an extra .3 children per generation that ultimately doomed the Neanderthals.
Or maybe it was something else entirely.