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

Video Indiana Controversy Points to Divergent Notions of Religious Freedom

Arkansas, North Carolina have approved similar laws that gay-marriage opponents say help maintain their beliefs in face of changing culture More

UNICEF Denies North Korean Measles Outbreak

Agency dismisses Russian media report after government, WHO assurances More

Turkey Seen Taking Harder Stance Against Militant Kurds

Stance comes as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is being seen as moving closer to generals More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
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.
Indiana Controversy Highlights Divergent Meanings of Religious Freedomi
X
Jerome Socolovsky
April 01, 2015 1:41 AM
Indiana’s state government has triggered a nationwide controversy by approving a law that critics say is aimed at allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The controversy stems from divergent notions of religious freedom in America. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Indiana Controversy Highlights Divergent Meanings of Religious Freedom

Indiana’s state government has triggered a nationwide controversy by approving a law that critics say is aimed at allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The controversy stems from divergent notions of religious freedom in America. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Nigerians Welcome Buhari's Return to Power

Crowds of jubilant Nigerians nationwide have celebrated the return to power of former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari. The retired army general won this year's presidential election with more than 2 million votes more than incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan. Buhari's supporters hope he can strengthen the country's economy and security once he takes office in late May. Zlatica Hoke has this story.
Video

Video Report: State of Black America a 'Tale of Two Nations'

The National Urban League has described this year's "State of Black America" report as a "tale of two nations." The group's annual report, released earlier this month (March), found that under an equality index African Americans had only 72% parity compared to whites in areas such as education, economics, health, social justice and civic engagement. It’s a gap that educators and students at Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College are looking to close. VOA's Daniela Schrier reports from the school.
Video

Video Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadists

At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video Gamma Ray Observatory to Open Soon in Mexico

American and Mexican scientists have completed construction of the world's largest gamma ray observatory, situated high in central Mexico’s Sierra Negra Mountain. The observatory's huge array of water-based detectors will soon start discovering secrets about black holes and supernovas. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials Underway in West Africa

Ebola has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people in West Africa. Since last summer, researchers have rushed to get anti-Ebola vaccines into clinical trials. While it's too early to say that any of the potential vaccines work, some scientists say they are seeing strong results from some of the studies. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in the Philippines. Close to five million foreign visitors traveled there last year, perhaps lured by the country’s tropical beaches. But Jason Strother reports from Manila that the country hopes to entice more travelers to stay indoors and spend money inside new casinos.
Video

Video Civilian Casualties Push Men to Join Rebels in Ukraine

The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods seem to be pushing more men to join the separatist fighters. Many of the new recruits are residents of Ukraine made bitter by new grievances, as well as old. VOA's Patrick Wells reports.
Video

Video Islamic State Prisoners Talk of Curiosity, God, Regret

Islamic State fighter, a prisoner of Kurdish YPG forces, asked his family asking for forgiveness: "I destroyed myself and I destroyed them along with me." The Syrian youth was one of two detainees who spoke to VOA’s Kurdish Service about the path they chose; their names have been changed and identifying details obscured. VOA's Zana Omer reports.
Video

Video Germanwings Findings Raise Issue of Psychological Testing for Pilots

More is being discovered about the co-pilot in the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in the French Alps. Investigators say he was hiding a medical condition, raising questions about the mental qualifications of pilots. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.

VOA Blogs

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More