El Salt archeological site in southern Spain, where scientists recovered the remains of Neanderthal excrement, providing evidence they ate both meat and plants. Neanderthals weren’t the culinary philistines they’d had us believe, scientists say, as they discover that the extinct human species actually rather quite liked vegetables.
Archaeologists examined 50,000-year-old fossilized faeces taken from a location in Alicante, Spain, amid a long held notion that their diet of the time was almost entirely made up of meat.
Roger Summons, an astrobiologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology searching for organic matter that could be the hallmarks of life on Mars. He’s studied the earliest geological and biochemical cycles on Earth. But last year he received an unusual proposal from a student who wondered if she could use the sophisticated biochemistry equipment in his laboratory for a somewhat less sweeping scientific investigation, a detailed study of Neanderthal poop.
The researchers examined the fecal fossils for biologically derived indicators of the types of food the Neanderthals ate.
Understanding the diet of past human species is closely related to our own and it will help us gain perspective on our evolutionary constraints and adaptability.
Their findings indicate that Neanderthals predominantly consumed meat as suggested by high amounts of one such biomarker called coprostanol formed by the bacterial reduction of cholesterol in the gut. But they also found evidence for significant plant intake as shown by the presence of a compound called 5 beta-stigmastanol, found in plant sources. The rest of their diet is believed to have been made up from berries, nuts and root vegetables.
“It’s like any other fossil,” added MIT geobiology professor Roger Summons. “Fossils provide our most direct link with organisms from the past.”
Neanderthals are the closest extinct relative to our species, Homo sapiens and disappeared after early modern humans first trekked into Europe from Africa. Neanderthals are believed to have prospered across Europe and Asia from roughly 250,000 to 40,000 years ago and interbred with Homo sapiens before vanishing.
“It’s important to understand all aspects of why humanity has come to dominate the planet the way it does,” said co-author Roger Summons. “A lot of that has to do with improved nutrition over time.