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

IS Militants Release 49 Turkish Hostages

Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency reports that no ransom was paid and no conditions accepted for the hostages' release; few details of the release are known More

Photogallery IS Attacks Send Thousands of Syrian Kurds Fleeing to Turkey

Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 300 Kurdish fighters crossed into Syria from Turkey to defend a Kurdish area from attack by the Islamic militants More

Video Sierra Leone's Ebola Lockdown Continues

Thousands of health workers are going door to door in the West African country of 6 million, informing people of how to avoid Ebola, handing out soap 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.
Fears Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’i
X
Jeff Seldin
September 20, 2014 10:28 PM
Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Fears Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’

Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Obama Goes to UN With Islamic State, Ebola on Agenda

President Obama goes to the United Nations General Assembly to rally nations to support a coalition against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. He also will look for nations to back his plan to fight the Ebola virus in West Africa. As VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports, Obama’s efforts reflect new moves by the U.S. administration to take a leading role in addressing world crises.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Militant Assault in Syria Displaces Thousands of Kurds

A major assault by Islamic State militants on Kurds in Syria has sent a wave of new refugees to the Turkish border, where they were stopped by Turkish border security. Turkey is already hosting about 700,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war between the government and the opposition. But the government in Ankara has a history of strained relations with Turkey's Kurdish minority. Zlatica Hoke reports Turkey is asking for international help.
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid