News / Science & Technology

Ancient Fecal Matter Reveals Secrets of Neanderthal Diet

A new study provides more evidence that Neanderthals ate vegetables along with meat. (Illustration: Christine Daniloff/MIT)
A new study provides more evidence that Neanderthals ate vegetables along with meat. (Illustration: Christine Daniloff/MIT)

Related Articles

Photogallery  Skulls Shine New Light on Human Evolution

Collection includes 17 skulls from the Sima de los Huesos (Pit of Bones) cave in Northern Spain

Humans Got Skin Genes From Neanderthals

Scientists found several genes dealing with a protein called keratin that our ancient human ancestors acquired by mating with Neanderthals, which helped them survive outside Africa

Neanderthals Organized Homes by Activity

New study shows that man’s ancestors butchered animals, made tools and gathered round the fire in different parts of their homes

New research suggests Neanderthal parents, like their modern-day human counterparts, might have had to lecture their kids to eat their vegetables.

Researchers from MIT and the University of La Laguna in Spain say 50,000-year-old Neanderthal fecal matter suggest our early ancestors were not solely meat-eaters, eating plants, berries, tubers and nuts.

“It’s important to understand all aspects of why humanity has come to dominate the planet the way it does,” said Roger Summons, a professor of geobiology in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and co-author of a paper about the discovery in a statement. “A lot of that has to do with improved nutrition over time."

By analyzing samples of the fecal matter, the researchers found “animal-derived cholesterol” but also phytosterol, a compound from plants. This, they say is the “first direct evidence that Neanderthals may have enjoyed an omnivorous diet.”

Summons and his team found the fecal matter at El Salt, a site in Alicante, Spain, where Neanderthals lived. A chemical analysis indicated a “significant plant intake,” researchers said.

According to Ainara Sistiaga, a graduate student at the University of La Laguna,
El Salt has evidence of recurrent Neanderthal occupation dating back tens of thousands of years.

She wrote in an email to VOA that they are sure they are dealing with human fecal matter because of synthesized cholesterol as well as the presence of another byproduct caused by the digestion of plants.

“We use those markers not only to identify the source of the fecal matter but also to deal to the unanswered question of the proportions of each type of food they were actually eaten,” she wrote.

Some previous attempts to discern the Neanderthal diet have been less direct, say the researchers. For example, Neanderthal bone fragments can show that Neanderthals may have eaten “pigs versus cows” but that it would probably underestimate the presence of plants in the diet.

Other studies have looked at vegetable matter stuck in the teeth of Neanderthal remains. This, the researchers say could be a clue that they ate plants, but could also mean they didn’t eat plants directly, but rather by eating the stomach contents of their prey.

In fact, last year, a study saying Neanderthals could have eaten the contents of their prey’s stomachs as an easy source of vegetable matter.

“It could come from the stomach contents, but is unlikely that it is only present in two from five samples [of fecal matter] if it was a regular behavior,” wrote Sistiaga. “In any case, this would represent another way to eat plants.”

The teeth method also could have only proved that Neanderthals perhaps used their teeth as tools, biting plants, but not necessarily eating them.

According to Sistiaga, among primates we are the only dedicated carnivores, and the only ones to take meat from large carcasses.

“Chimpanzees, our closest relatives, show a dependence on ripe fruit, acquiring around 5 percent of its food from meat, and for some, up to 10 percent,” she wrote. adding that chimps can go weeks or months without meat.

Humans, on the other hand, have a relatively large upper gut with bacteria “well suited for lipid digestion.”

Richard Wrangham, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University, who was not involved in the study, said in a statement that determining if Neanderthals had eaten plants was “entirely a matter of guesswork” until now.

He added that the new research confirms theories that Neanderthals were not 100 percent carnivores.

“In the end it would not be surprising to find that Neanderthals show little difference from sapiens in their diet composition,” he said in the statement.

The researchers next plan to head to analyze soil sample at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, where some of the earliest traces of early man have been found.

The study was published in the journal PLoS ONE.


You May Like

Afghanistan, Pakistan Leaders to Hold Icebreaking Talks in Paris

Two sides are expected to discuss ways to ease bilateral tensions and jointly work for resumption of stalled peace talks between Afghan government and Taliban officials

Corruption Busting Is Her Game

South African activist is building 'international online community of thousands of corruption fighters'

Former SAF Businessman Gives Books, Love of Reading to Students

Steve Tsakaris now involved in nonprofit Read to Rise, which distributes books in Soweto, encourages lower-grade primary school students to read

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs