Neanderthals Weren't Just Bloody-jawed Carnivores, Oldest Fossil Feces Shows

Until the 50,000-year droppings were found, knowledge of their diet had come from analyzing stomach contents and the fossil crud between Neanderthal skulls' teeth.

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Recreation of a Neanderthal at home: Not carnivorous morons, as had been thought.Credit: Reuters
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

The world of scientists studying the mysteries of human evolution is a strange one. You might be grossed out by the finding of say a prehistoric toe bone in the garden, let alone a jaw fragment, but that's the sort of thing that can give them palpitations.

"If I could go back in time, the first thing I'd want to do is meet Australopithecus and the Neanderthals," one tells Haaretz dreamily. Well, too bad about that – but mankind could take a peek into our ancient past with the paradigm-changing discovery of fossil feces, the oldest found yet, in a cave in Spain.

Indeed, the 50,000-year old poo is reason to party among the paleo crowd, or at least to hold another conference. Going by the other findings in the cave it clearly belonged to Neanderthals, a cousin of us Homo sapiens, both of which species apparently split off from Homo erectus.

And what does the fossil fecal matter teach us about our hulking long-lost cuz, who we'd probably not want to meet in a dark alley? In contrast to popular opinion among paleontologists, Neanderthals – or at least the one that dropped the load - were not just carnivores. They ate their veggies.

"Our interest in Neanderthals is for several reasons," says Prof. Yoel Rak of the Tel Aviv University department of Anatomy and Anthropology. "It had a unique, exotic anatomy and is an intriguing diversion from our evolutionary tree. Also, until about 30,000 years ago, they lived among us."

Neanderthals lived mainly in Europe but also existed in Asia and the Middle East, including in the area that became Israel. And on what, science wonders, did Neanderthals dine?

Based on zooarchaeological evidence, science thought they ate mainly meat. Now the findings at the caves of El Salt (Alicante, Spain), analyzed by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, show they did partake of the animal – but also extensively of the plant, say researchers from Spain and MIT.

"This is the first time such ancient leavings have been found," says Prof. Ran Barkai, head of the Archaeology Department at Tel Aviv University, noting that they put to rest at least some of the perennially raging arguments about How Neanderthals Lived.

Like modern man, writes the team headed by Ainara Sistiaga, Neanderthals had a high rate of cholesterol metabolism, which meant they had to have the right bacteria in their guts – and that attested to eating animals. But the scientists also found stigmastanol B5 in the poo, which could only get there from digestion of plants (such as roots, berries, and nuts too).

Weedy side dish

Previous studies of Neanderthal diet had to rely on fossilized stomach content and food remains caught between their teeth.

Barkai feels the study proves that the suspicion had been right all along – our lost cousins were primarily meat-eaters and the plants we now know they ate, were like "the asparagus side-dish by the steak."

Based on the anatomy of their jaws and teeth, Rak agrees. Mankind's jaw is more generalized, he says: going by the bone structure modern man has a more variegated diet than the Neanderthal did.

The findings fit with what we know about the climatic conditions and the constraints under which Neanderthals lived, says Barkai. Living in Europe, they had to weather the ice ages in which plant food was scarce. When it came to animals, if it moved, they'd eat it, from mice to mammoths, and they wouldn't cavil at a turtle. "This research shows that the Neanderthals knew how to exploit all the resources at their disposal," he says.

In Israel, Neanderthals and modern man coexisted, including according to findings in caves on Mount Carmel. Discoveries in these caves and in Europe have led to a new, more sensitive understanding of Neanderthal culture, replacing the image of a grunting brute with a language-competent, cultured mourner who buried his dead with flowers.

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