Scientists said on Wednesday they found five samples of human
fecal matter at an archeological site called El Salt, in the floor
of a rock shelter where Neanderthals once lived.
Analysis of the samples provided a new understanding of the diet of
this extinct human species, offering the first evidence that
Neanderthals were omnivores who also ate vegetables as part of their
meat-heavy diet, they said.
The straight poop: Fossil feces is not merely prehistoric toilet
"So far, it is the only fossil evidence that gives us information of
the ingestion and the regular meals of our ancestors," said Ainara
Sistiaga, a geoarchaeologist at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology and University of La Laguna who was one of the
"Understanding the diet of past human species closely related to our
own will help us gain perspective on our evolutionary constraints
and adaptability," Sistiaga added.
The researchers examined the fecal fossils for biologically derived
indicators of the types of food the Neanderthals ate.
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.
"It's like any other fossil," added Massachusetts Institute of
Technology geobiology professor Roger Summons, another of the
researchers. "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.
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Scientists previously have hypothesized that Neanderthals were
largely carnivorous with perhaps some vegetables but never before
had direct evidence like these fossils provided.
"Sometimes in prehistoric societies, individuals used their teeth as
tools, biting plants among other things. We can't assume they were
actually eating plants based on finding microfossils in teeth,"
The El Salt site shows evidence of long-time Neanderthal occupation,
with numerous fireplaces and stone tools as well as animal and human
The researchers could not identify the specific foods eaten but
noted that animal remains suggested the Neanderthals hunted deer and
horses. Sistiaga said evidence showed the presence of berries, nuts
and tubers but "we cannot say anything about what kind of plants
were actually eaten."
Neanderthals were shorter and stockier than the sleeker Homo
sapiens. Many scientists dispute the outdated notion of Neanderthals
as dimwitted brutes, pointing to evidence of complex hunting
methods, likely communication via spoken language, and use of
symbolic objects and pigments, probably for body painting.
SOURCE: http://bit.ly/1lQBBbM PLOS ONE, online June 25, 2014.
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