Did Neanderthals Eat Inner Bark?

Article excerpt


The recent publication of a series of modified, pointed mammoth ribs from the Middle Palaeolithic site of Salzgitter-Lebenstedt has raised several issues about Neanderthal mental and motor capabilities (Gaudzinsld 1999). No strong suggestions as to what these objects might have been used for have been put forward. We would like to suggest that these, and other bone, antler, and wooden items recovered from European Palaeolithic sites, may have been bark peelers used to procure inner bark from trees and that this was an early and widespread Palaeolithic activity.

Many modern and recently extant indigenous groups from the temperate regions of the globe have exploited the inner bark of certain tree species as a food and medicine. In ethnographic cases where data is available, the inner bark is collected following the removal of the outer bark, which is carried out with a simple pointed tool that was manufactured and maintained specifically for this purpose. It is noted here that the known illustrations and ethnographic examples of these tools are very similar in size and form to a number of artefacts recovered from Palaeolithic contexts in temperate Europe.

Ethnographic bark peeling

Inner bark is the living, growing material of a tree that is added each year between the inner woody trunk and the outer bark components. It is described in ethnographic accounts as either a staple, a supplement to more staple resources, starvation food, as a 'treat', or, for some tree species, as having medicinal value (Turner 1988). In addition, both the outer bark and inner bark of various deciduous and conifer trees have been used ethnographically as construction materials for such things as cordage and weaving materials for containers, clothing, and shelter. Bark is also a common food among the great apes and, based on this, Watanabe (1985:12) suggested that it could be expected that it was a common food resource among the early humans first moving into more temperate regions and among the classic Neanderthals of Europe. It would certainly be an attractive and abundant resource during the colder climatic periods, including the last glacial maximum in Europe.

Ethnographic evidence indicates that inner bark was exploited as a food resource all across the temperate globe. In North America it was used by pre-and post-European contact groups in the Pacific north-west (Eidlitz 1969; Turner 1975; People of the 'Ksan 1980; Turner & Hebda 1989; Gottesfeld 1992; Mobely & Eldridge 1992; Kuhnlein & Turner 1996), in the Interior Plateau region (Teit 1900; Morice 1910; Turner 1987), in the Plains (Swetnam 1984; Kuhnlcin & Turner 1996), in the American south-west (Swetnam 1984), in the eastern and sub-Arctic Woodlands (Kuhnlein &Turner 1996), and in the eastern Maritimes (Kuhnlein &Turner 1996). In Eurasia it is known to have been exploited by eastern Russian agricultural populations at least up to the late nineteenth century (Maack 1870; Krashninnikov 1972), and in Scandinavian regions (Eidlitz 1969; Airaksinen 1986; Niklasson 1994; Zackrisson et al. 2000).

Inner bark was typically collected in the spring and early summer when other resources were often in scarce supply or of poor nutritional quality (in many places the spring was a starvation period). It includes the (vascular) cambium and associated layers of non-woody tissues; in particular, secondary phloem. It forms between the secondary xylem (the inner tree wood) and the primary phloem (the innermost component of the outer bark layer) and these tissues develop from it (Figure 1) (Bowes 1996: 67; Larson 1994:67-68, 1982). Spring/ early summer is the time of year when this layer is forming and is still physically separate from the outer bark and the secondary xylem on either side of it. Toward the end of this season the inner bark layer quickly becomes tougher as it differentiates into the tougher primary phloem and secondary xylem tissues. …