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Sample believed to be ancient feces may reveal Neanderthal dietary habits

It’s perhaps a slightly icky topic, but a new archaeological discovery this week could prove to be historically and scientifically significant.

While on a dig at the site once inhabited by Neanderthals known as El Salt in Spain, scientists with the country’s University of La Laguna as well as MIT found what appears to be the world’s oldest reported traces of fecal matter.

Using a technique known as gas chromatography and then mass spectrometry, an analysis of the sample indicated that it is about 50,000 years old--much older than the previous record holder of about 12,000 years--and contained evidence of both meat and plant. The existence of both is important in that it suggests Neanderthals may have been more omnivorous than previously thought. Five samples total were taken from the site and though three indicated animal consumption, two also included evidence of “a significant intake of plants.”

Finding the fecal matter was not exactly intentional, as the scientists were at the site looking for evidence of lipids (a group of molecules that includes fats) that would confirm lead researcher Ainara Sistiaga’s suspicion that the Neanderthals were preparing food there. In fact, it was found on the top layer of the remains of a campfire, which Sistiaga said likely means it was deposited after the fire was extinguished (at least you’d hope so).

"I was quite surprised we found these samples in a place where they would eat," she said. "We think they were deposited after they stopped using the fire pit."

There’s some skepticism about the study despite its intriguing implications, however. For one, some anthropologists claim there’s a possibility that the sample isn’t actually human but instead came from an animal such as an omnivorous bear. Another researcher posited that the compounds found in the sample could have degraded over time, calling it “notoriously difficult to identify the species of coprolites [fossilized feces].”

Sistiaga defended both counts, saying that bears don’t produce the same chemical that humans do when they ingest cholesterol. She also claims that degradation wouldn’t affect the results of the test.

As BBC News noted on Wednesday, she did agree with University of York archaeologist Dr. Stephen Buckley, who said it’s possible that Neanderthals probably ate what was available based on their respective climates. Those in colder climates, for instance, would probably rely more on the calories found in animal flesh, while those in warmer climates like Spain would have more opportunities and reason to eat plants in addition.

"Increasingly, it's obvious that the picture needs to be revised," he said.