What can you learn from 50,000 year old poop? Quite a lot actually, as researchers from MIT and the University of La Laguna discovered this week. In a paper published in PLOS One, geoarcheologists announced that they had uncovered direct evidence that neanderthals did, in fact, eat their vegetables.
The fossilized fecal matter in question was found near ancient hearths in Spain and predates the oldest known Homo sapiens poop sample (from Oregon) by about 37,700 years. The researchers found that the sample contained chemical signatures that were consistent with digested plants.
In the past, evidence of bones around neanderthal campsites lead archaeologists to think that their diet was primarily meat-based, and while it might seem like common sense that neanderthals ate plants in addition to their high-protein diet, there has been limited physical evidence of other parts of their diet.
"If you find it in the faeces, you are sure that it was ingested," lead author Ainara Sistiaga told BBC News. "This molecular fossil is perfect to try to know the proportion of both food sources in a Neanderthal meal."
So far, the evidence suggests that neanderthals ate mostly meat, with nuts, berries, and root vegetables thrown in for good measure.
Unfortunately, just because they had some plant matter in their diet doesn’t mean that these were particularly healthy people. In addition to the chemical signatures for plants and meat, the researchers also found evidence of parasites in the poop.