Using Ancient Faeces to Reconstruct Neanderthals’ Diets

We may think it’s only ‘nutritionists’ who are obsessed with our faeces in modern times, but researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of La Laguna have been conducting scientific analyses on some far older samples.

In their study, published in PLOS ONE, Dr. Ainara Sistiaga and colleagues used analytical techniques to study the diets of Neanderthals, and discovered biomarkers in Neanderthal faeces which suggest that they may have consumed more plant matter than previously thought. The group used a technique called gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, which separates and identifies the different constituents of a sample. They examined faecal samples from an archaeological site in Spain which date back around 50,000 years ago – possibly the oldest known faeces.

Image Credit: Mara ~earth light~ free potentialDid our prehistoric Neanderthal relatives dine on ‘meat and two veg’ suppers too?
Image Credit: Mara ~earth light~ free potential

The biomarkers found in the samples indicated the composition of the Neanderthal faeces, and the researchers could use knowledge of how food is digested in the gut to work out what they ate. For example, the presence of the by-product coprostanol suggests an intake of cholesterol, usually found in meat, whilst 5β-stigmastanol is a by-product of the digestion of vegetation.

The Neanderthal stereotype many of us hold is that of the carnivorous caveman, surviving on meat which he has hunted and cooked over an open fire. However, whilst the group did find high levels of coprostanol in the faecal samples, indicating a diet predominantly containing meat, there were also significant quantities of the plant biomarker 5β-stigmastanol, so it seems that these Neanderthals were omnivorous.

It is hard to deduce a person’s diet purely from their faeces, because multiple food compositions could lead to the same result. For example, the researchers point out that plants contain cholesterol too, though in smaller quantities, so a large amount of plant matter could produce similar digestive by-products to a smaller amount of meat.

Nonetheless, Dr. Sistiaga notes that: “this study represents the first approach to Neanderthal diet through the analysis of faecal markers found in archaeological sediment”1. As such, it paves the way for further valuable work in this area. Get ready to find out a lot more about ancient faeces!

 

Full paper available at:

http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0101045

Sources:

1PLOS ONE Press Release, June 19th

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