Science

The Neanderthal diet

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Ancient poop reveals that the food of our primitive cousins was not very different from ours
As the popular conception of Neanderthals goes, both among scientists and lay folk, our primitive cousins were carnivores. They went out on hunts, and much if not all of their diet consisted of meat. However, according to a new study published in PLoS One, the Neanderthal diet was rather varied. Besides meat, they also consumed vegetables, nuts and tubers.

Researchers from MIT in the US and the Spanish University of La Laguna made this discovery by examining traces of Neanderthal faeces. Five samples of ancient poop, at least 50,000 years old, found at a cave in El Salt, Spain, were put under the scanner, with analysts looking for biomarkers that showed what Neanderthals ate. While all samples contained signs of meat consumption, as expected, two samples showed significant traces of plants, the first such direct evidence of Neanderthals being omnivorous.

The researchers write in the journal: ‘Dietary differences between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans have been claimed to be one of the possible causes of their disappearance. The complex spectrum of food sources exploited by the latter could have represented an adaptive advantage compared to a more restricted Neanderthal diet based on high meat intake… [New evidence presents] a completely different image of Neanderthals as a population that exploited and cooked a wide range of plant species.’

In the past, when scientists tried to reconstruct the Neanderthal diet, they used analysis of bone fragments for carbon and nitrogen isotopes, which could show which meats were consumed more than others. The flaw here was that such data could only differentiate between protein sources, and thus did not factor in the likelihood of plant consumption.

Expound the authors in their report: ‘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.’

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