Did Neanderthals Eat Plants? The Proof May Be In The Poop

Jun 28, 2014

By Nicholas St. Fleur

Neanderthals clubbed their way to the top of an ancient food chain, slaying caribou and mammoths. But a peek inside their prehistoric poop reveals that the meat-loving early humans may have also enjoyed some salad on the side.

Researchers excavating a site in southern Spain where Neanderthals lived 50,000 years ago were initially looking for remnants of food in fireplaces. Then they stumbled upon tiny bits of poop — which turned out to be the oldest fecal matter from a human relation ever discovered.

Ainara Sistiaga, a paleoarchaeologist with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who led the excavation, tells The Salt that what surprised her team even more was the contents of the poop.

When they analyzed poop from the site, called El Salt, under a microscope, they saw cholesterol-like compounds called phytosterols, which come from plants. The feces also contained a lot of animal-derived cholesterol — confirming they were also chowing down on meat.

“This opens a new window into Neanderthal diet because it’s the first time we actually know what they digested and consumed,” Sistiaga says. The findings appeared Wednesday in the journalPLOS One.

For years, scientists assumed our early ancestors were carnivores. According to that theory, Neanderthals saw plants merely as part of the terrain, or perhaps as tools, but certainly not as food. Until a couple of decades ago, there was little hard evidence of an omnivorous Neanderthal.

One study found fossilized bits of plant stuck between the teeth of a Neanderthal. That study, Sistiaga points out, did not confirm the Neanderthals’ taste for plants because she says they could have used their mouths as a third hand to hold the plant and use it as a tool. Or the plant material could have come from the entrails of an animal they’d eaten, she says.

6 comments on “Did Neanderthals Eat Plants? The Proof May Be In The Poop

  • For years, scientists assumed our early ancestors were carnivores. According to that theory, Neanderthals saw plants merely as part of the terrain, or perhaps as tools, but certainly not as food.

    Seriously? I’d like to hear the argument for that one. Maybe when they say “ancestors” they’re going back much earlier than I think they are. How would they explain the configuration of the teeth? What about vitamins we need to get from plants? What about all the plants, nuts and tubers gathered by the women in H-G groups? So while the men were out hunting all day and half the night, what were the women doing all day? Were they hunting as well?

    To say that our early ancestors were carnivorous harkens back to the bad old days of male dominated social science departments and their propensity for painting a picture of domestic caveman bliss a la Fred Flinstone: “Hey Wilma! Get in the kitchen and rattle those pots and pans! I bagged a Brontosaurus and we’re having Barney and Betty over for a BBQ!”

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  • @OP- When they analyzed poop from the site, called El Salt, under a microscope, they saw cholesterol-like compounds called phytosterols, which come from plants. The feces also contained a lot of animal-derived cholesterol — confirming they were also chowing down on meat.

    “This opens a new window into Neanderthal diet because it’s the first time we actually know what they digested and consumed,” Sistiaga says. The findings appeared Wednesday in the journalPLOS One.

    This sounds a bit like the diet of those predatory bears! – Food selected according to availability!

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  • I’d like to hear the reasoning too as I can see now reason to back up such an assertion, and I’ve never actually heard anyone claim it for hominid ancestors (no doubt the shrew-like mammal was a carnivore). I’m certainly no expert but it seems glaringly obvious that they would have been omnivores. When you’re as a slow as apes, hunting is not a reliable food source and the teeth of the Neanderthal (not actually a direct ancestor of course) are not those of a dedicated carnivore.

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  • On the one hand I’m not sure why this would come as a surprise. It seems extremely likely that Neanderthals would try to consume anything that seemed remotely edible during times of hunger, which would be most times. Depending on the locale there would be innumerable plant life available. Exclusive carnivorousness seems impractical and unlikely.

    On the other hand it also seems entirely possible that these phytosterols could have come from plant foods the animals themselves consumed. Certainly Neanderthals did not only eat the muscle meat. They would have eaten organ meats too, some of which would likely have had substances like phytosterols present.

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  • Steven007 – On the other hand it also seems entirely possible that these phytosterols could have come from plant foods the animals themselves consumed. Certainly Neanderthals did not only eat the muscle meat. They would have eaten organ meats too, some of which would likely have had substances like phytosterols present.

    @OP – Or the plant material could have come from the entrails of an animal they’d eaten, she says.

    Given the ice-age conditions at least some Neanderthals were living in, it is worth noting that in order to get some vegetable content in their diets, traditionally, Inuits ate the Reindeer Moss from the stomachs of the caribou they had killed for meat. It would be interesting to have an analysis of which plants were in the Neanderthal diet.

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