June 26, 2014

Neandertals ate their veggies

PLoS ONE 9(6): e101045. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0101045

The Neanderthal Meal: A New Perspective Using Faecal Biomarkers

Ainara Sistiaga et al.

Neanderthal dietary reconstructions have, to date, been based on indirect evidence and may underestimate the significance of plants as a food source. While zooarchaeological and stable isotope data have conveyed an image of Neanderthals as largely carnivorous, studies on dental calculus and scattered palaeobotanical evidence suggest some degree of contribution of plants to their diet. However, both views remain plausible and there is no categorical indication of an omnivorous diet. Here we present direct evidence of Neanderthal diet using faecal biomarkers, a valuable analytical tool for identifying dietary provenance. Our gas chromatography-mass spectrometry results from El Salt (Spain), a Middle Palaeolithic site dating to ca. 50,000 yr. BP, represents the oldest positive identification of human faecal matter. We show that Neanderthals, like anatomically modern humans, have a high rate of conversion of cholesterol to coprostanol related to the presence of required bacteria in their guts. Analysis of five sediment samples from different occupation floors suggests that Neanderthals predominantly consumed meat, as indicated by high coprostanol proportions, but also had significant plant intake, as shown by the presence of 5β-stigmastanol. This study highlights the applicability of the biomarker approach in Pleistocene contexts as a provider of direct palaeodietary information and supports the opportunity for further research into cholesterol metabolism throughout human evolution.



Wil said...

Pretty sure I remember reading that they found neanderthal teeth with grains stuck in-between - over 2 years ago. This is just adding more evidence. Or are seed grains lodged and fossilized in between neanderthal teeth not considered direct evidence?

CleverPrimate said...

I don’t find this an earth shattering revelation. The very nature of a hunting lifestyle dictates that there will be lean times between hunts when meat is not available and by necessity the diet of the hunters will need to be supplemented by vegetational resources. I see no reason why Neandertals would be any less omnivorous than “modern” humans.

Fanty said...

"Or are seed grains lodged and fossilized in between neanderthal teeth not considered direct evidence?"

I read that the stuff between the teeth could still had been, because of "brushing teeth with plants", instead of eating plants.

eurologist said...

Since we left tropical trees and a diet high in fruits, flowers/buds, nuts, and fresh greens, where we lost the ability to synthesize a number of vitamins, we need fruits and vegetables as a source of these essential vitamins. We also need some minimum amount of carbohydrates to absorb protein to the fullest - especially during lean times, when animal fats are hard to come by.

Yes, Neanderthals consumed vegetables and fruit - because they knew they had to, and also because anyone not involved in hunting or care-taking had time to find some.