Israeli researchers on the Paleo diet: Neanderthals ate plants as well as meat

A tiny grape pip, or seed, left on the ground some 780,000 years ago is one of more than 9,000 remains of edible plants discovered at a Stone Age site in Israel.

December 5, 2016 22:36
3 minute read.

Food . (photo credit: Courtesy)

Hebrew University researchers studying the ancient diet of people in Paleolithic times have discovered proof that they ate a plant-based menu. The paleo diet, in which people eat lots of meat and avoid the carbohydrates found in grains and legumes to lose weight, has been fashionable in recent years and is inspired by what people living during the Stone Age allegedly ate as they hunted prey.

A tiny grape pip, or seed, left on the ground some 780,000 years ago is one of more than 9,000 remains of edible plants discovered at a Stone Age site in Israel on the shoreline of Lake Hula in the northern Jordan valley, dating back to the Acheulian culture from over a million years ago.

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An ancient collection of edible plants found in Israel provides rich testimony of the plant-based diet of our prehistoric ancestors and is the largest and most diverse in the Levantine corridor linking Africa and Eurasia.

Prof. Naama Goren-Inbar of the university’s archeology institute conducted excavations at the waterlogged site of Gesher Bnot Ya’acov with colleagues to study the vegetable diet of humans from early-mid-Pleistocene era, which is central to understanding the evolution, adaptation and exploitation of the environment by hominids.

Goren-Inbar’s research is titled “The plant component of an Acheulian diet: A case study from Gesher Bnot Ya’acov, Israel” and will be published next week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

She reveals the discovery of the ancient macro-botanical remains, which for the first time indicate the rich variety of plant assortments and subsistence opportunities that were available to the early humans on the transition from an African-based to a Eurasian diet.

“In recent years, we were met with a golden opportunity to reveal numerous remains of fruits, nuts and seeds from trees, shrubs and the lake, alongside the remains of animals and man-made stone tools in one locality,” Goren-Inbar said.

She and Dr. Yoel Melamed of the life sciences faculty at Bar-Ilan University identified 55 species of edible plants, including seeds, fruits, nuts, leaves, stems, roots and tubers.

The findings, many of them small in size, have been preserved for hundreds of thousands of years, thanks to the damp conditions in the vicinity of the site, said Melamed. The basalts under and in the site were dated and the dates were confirmed by results of paleomagnetic analysis.

“This region is known for the wealth of plants, but what surprised us were the sources of plant food coming from the lake. We found more than 10 species that existed here in prehistoric times but no longer [exist] today, such as two types of water nuts, from which seven were edible,” explained Melamed.

The site was submerged under the Jordan River and the Hula Lake in conditions of humidity and lack of oxygen, aided by the fast covering of layers of sediments, in which archeologists also found stone tools and animal fossils.

Gesher Bnot Ya’acov is also the place where Goren-Inbar found the earliest evidence of the use of fire in Eurasia. “The use of fire is very important because a lot of the plants are toxic or inedible. Using fire, like roasting nuts and roots for example, allows the use of various parts of the plant and increases the diversity of the plant component of the Acheulian diet, alongside aquatic and terrestrial fauna,” said Goren-Inbar.

The use of fire and the availability of a diverse range of flora highlight the ability of prehistoric man to adjust to a new environment, to exploit the environment for his own benefit and to colonize beyond Africa, she said.

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