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Monday, 21 May, 2001, 23:48 GMT 00:48 UK
Fishy clue to rise of humans
Fishing BBC
Humans have relied on fishing since the dawn of time
By BBC News Online's Helen Briggs

The aquatic diet of early modern humans could have helped them triumph over the Neanderthals.

New evidence suggests that humans living 20-30,000 years ago supplemented their diets with fish and waterfowl.

Archaeologists believe that the supplies helped humans survive when larger prey, such as bison and reindeer, was in short supply.

But Neanderthals, who appear to have been prodigious meat-eaters, died out.

The study is based on a chemical analysis of early human bones from sites in what is now the Czech Republic, UK and Russia.

Chemical clue

The results were compared with data from the remains of Neanderthals who inhabited inland Europe at about the same time.

Early modern human diet
Berries and tubers
Bison, horse, reindeer etc
Isotopic analysis - which compares different forms of the same atom - gives a clue to the source of their dietary protein.

The study suggests that about half of the protein in the diet of early modern humans came from freshwater fish and waterfowl.

In contrast, Neanderthals seemed to derive most of their protein from hunting large animals such as cattle, red deer and even mammoths.

Neanderthal diet
Wild horse
Wild cattle
Red deer
Early modern humans had a more varied diet, said lead author Dr Michael Richards, of the University of Bradford, UK.

"They would have been able to trap fish and birds showing they were much more versatile and adaptable than Neanderthals," he told BBC News Online.

The team believes that early modern humans probably had the technology to store fish for future use, perhaps by drying or salting.

"If you are able to exploit smaller animals using various technological means - harvesting and trapping and so on - you are far more resilient and more likely to survive in harsh environments," said co-author Paul Pettitt of Keble College, Oxford University.

He believes Neanderthals became over-reliant on hunting large animals.


"Neanderthals in some respects were the victims of their own success," Dr Pettitt told BBC News Online.

Neanderthals in some respects were the victims of their own success

Dr Paul Pettitt, Oxford University
"They were super-predators," he added. "I suspect they spent most of their time hunting medium and large-sized herbivores for immediate return. If those herbivores fluctuated or a new competitor arrived, they had nowhere to go."

The archaeologists acknowledge that not all scientists will share their conclusions. Some experts believe that Neanderthals interbred with early modern humans, and that their genes live on.

The new research is reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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29 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Neanderthals not human ancestors
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