MIT study unearths neanderthal diet
The popular conception of the Neanderthal as a club-wielding carnivore is, well, rather primitive, according to a new study conducted at MIT. Instead, our prehistoric cousin may have had a more varied diet that, while heavy on meat, also included plant tissues, such as tubers and nuts.
Scientists from MIT and the University of La Laguna in Spain have identified human fecal remains from El Salt, a known site of Neanderthal occupation in southern Spain that dates back 50,000 years. The researchers analyzed each sample for metabolized versions of animal-derived cholesterol, as well as phytosterol, a cholesterol-like compound found in plants. While all samples contained signs of meat consumption, two samples showed traces of plants — the first direct evidence that Neanderthals may have enjoyed an omnivorous diet.
"We have passed through different phases in our interpretation of Neanderthals," says Ainara Sistiaga, a graduate student at the University of La Laguna who led the analysis as a visiting student at MIT. She and her colleagues have published their study in the journal PLoS ONE.
"It's important to understand all aspects of why humanity has come to dominate the planet the way it does," adds co-author Roger Summons, a professor of geobiology in MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. "A lot of that has to do with improved nutrition over time."
While scientists have attempted to reconstruct the Neanderthal diet, much of the evidence has been inconclusive, until now. Researchers looked for fecal remains in El Salt, an excavation site in Alicante, Spain, where remnants of multiple Neanderthal occupations have been unearthed. Samples were then analyzed for coprostanol - a lipid formed when the gut metabolizes cholesterol. While this is evidence of a largely meat-based diet, two samples also held biomarkers of plants which Sistiaga says may indicate a rather significant plant intake. This leads researchers to believe that while Neanderthals had a mostly meat-based diet, they may have also consumed a fairly regular portion of plants, such as tubers, berries, and nuts.
Richard Wrangham, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University says that, "These lovely new data on fecal sterols confirm what many people have been increasingly thinking, which is that something is wrong with the inference that Neanderthals were 100 percent carnivores ... the Sistiaga data are a wonderful new source for challenging conventional wisdom. In the end it would not be surprising to find that Neanderthals show little difference from sapiens in their diet composition."
Read more at MIT News.
Caveman silhouette image via Shutterstock.