I could make a poop joke here. This is, after all, a story about the oldest human poop ever found.
And I like a good poop joke as much as the next guy, of course, but what the discovery shows is a lot more interesting than the comic possibilities in the fact that scientist handled a coil some guy or gal laid down 50,000 years ago. It busts up once and for all the long-held image of Neanderthals as pure carnivores.
Although other proof that Neanderthals ate more than meat has been found in their teeth and habitations, if you want to prove definitively that someone eats vegetables, finding the remains of vegetables in his feces would do it. And that’s just what Ainara Sistiaga, a PhD student at the University of La Laguna on the Canary Islands, and her colleagues did.
Samples were collected by the team from a 50,000-year-old campfire in the El Salt dig site, a Neanderthal habitation near Alicante in Spain.
The samples were taken to MIT, where the team used gas chromatography to identify and analyze human “coprolites” or pieces of fossilized feces, inside the soil. Although the samples certainly showed the Neanderthals ate meat, enough chemical markers for vegetable matter were identified to determine that whomever expelled it also had a “significant” intake of plants.
“If you find it in the feces, you are sure that it was ingested,” Sistiaga told BBC News. “This molecular fossil is perfect to try to know the proportion of both food sources in a Neanderthal meal.”
Based on the area, the local Neanderthals probably ate berries, roots and seeds. This finding also might put to rest a theory that Neanderthals died out because they were less adaptable in their diets.
“We believe Neanderthals probably ate what was available in different situations, seasons, and climates,” Sistiaga said.
The discovery also may help scientists better understand human evolution, because it supports the idea that Neanderthals, like modern humans, also had helpful bacteria to break down food in their guts.
[Source Article: PLOS ONE]
Neanderthal image from Wikimedia Commons