Scientists Sift Through Neanderthal Excreta To Dig Out Valuable Insights

Alap Naik Desai - Author

Jun. 27 2014, Updated 8:47 a.m. ET

Neanderthals are one of our oldest precursors. Their ways of eating and living may have long been obliterated and people may be living in urban jungles today, but insights into their existence thousands of years ago still fascinate scientists. Recently researchers carefully extracted the oldest known Neanderthal excreta in Spain and offered data that will surely re-write ancient history books about our primitive ancestors.

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The researchers were working at the archeological site of El Salt, where they have found evidence of Neanderthals. These cavemen had made this region their home some 45,000 to 60,000 years ago and left invaluable clues to their ways of living. It was here that the scientists managed to unearth samples they firmly believe are human excreta. Carbon dating has proven the age of the droppings to perfectly coincide with the time Neanderthals roamed the earth, reportedBBC.

After carefully removing the samples, researchers dug into the now-rock-hard sediment and ground the samples to a fine powder. This fine powder of Neanderthal poo was sent for analysis at a sophisticated Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) lab to determine its ingredients.

From the biomarkers, the MIT lab has been able to find significant quantities of Coprostanol, a type of lipid that forms in the gut. It builds up when the gut metabolizes cholesterol, which is majorly derived from animals. This strongly suggested that Neanderthals were regular meat eaters, reportedCBC News.

However, scientists also discovered the presence of 5B-stigmastanol, a substance that is made when plants are broken down in the digestive process. In conclusion, Neanderthals ate mostly meat, as experts have believed for some time. However, there was also evidence of a considerable amount of plants in their diet, including tubers, berries and nuts.

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Unsurprisingly, the quantities of 5B-stigmastanol are far lower than Coprostanol. This means that though Neanderthals preferred meat over their veggies, they scourged and consumed vegetation during the times when they couldn’t hunt, confirmed Ainara Sistiaga, a graduate student at the University of La Laguna who performed the research while studying at MIT.

“We believe Neanderthals probably ate what was available in different situations, seasons and climates,” Sistiaga explained.

For a long time, researchers have contradicted the find as inconclusive. This is because previous studies were based on residue found on the Neanderthal’s teeth. Scientists argued that the plant residue found on the teeth could mean that they simply used their teeth as tools and may not have consumed vegetation.

However, this find clears the doubt once and for all. Neanderthals regularly ate their veggies. No wonder moms today insist their kids do the same.

[Image Credit | Nikola Solic/Reuters]


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