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Oldest Neanderthal poop ever found reveals dietary preferences

Neanderthal diet has been a matter of contention for more than a century due to the limited amount of fossil evidence that has been found that would indicate what Neanderthal’s ate. Ainara Sistiaga from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of La Laguna and colleagues have discovered new evidence about Neanderthal’s diet in feces (coprolites) preserved at the El Salt site in Spain. The new discovery was published in the June 25, 2014, edition of the journal Public Library of Science.

Here is a view of El Salt archeological site.
Credit: Ainara Sistiaga Usage Restrictions: This image is published under a Creative Commons Attribution License, which allows it to be freely reused and modified with proper attribution.

The five samples found may be the oldest known human fecal matter and date to about 50,000 years ago. Although anatomically different from modern humans, fossil evidence indicates that Neanderthal’s has a similar dietary chemistry that produced identifiable remains in the Neanderthal’s feces. The components of dietary matter from the Neanderthal feces discovered at the El Salt site were analyzed using gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry.

The results indicate that Neanderthals diet included more vegetable matter than previously thought. Neanderthals were primarily carnivores. The new analysis indicates that these early human ancestors consumed vegetable matter at about 15 percent of their diet. The analysis indicated the source of the majority of vegetable food consumed by Neanderthals was in the form of tubers that grew underground.

This study explains the vegetable remains found in some Neanderthal’s teeth in recent years. More specific methods of extraction allowed the discovery of a vegetable component in Neanderthals diet that has been confirmed by this new research. More interestingly, the new research indicates that the bacterial component of the Neanderthal gut and the enzyme systems that metabolized both meat and vegetables were very much like those found in modern humans.

The earliest known human ancestors are known to have eaten grasses as a part of their diet. Now we know that Neanderthals also consumed vegetable matter. Perhaps the small percentage of Neanderthal DNA that exists in many humans is part of the origin of modern man’s voracious appetite for fruits and vegetables.