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.