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When it comes to Neanderthal diets, the consensus has been: they ate meat. Lots of meat. But now it looks like Neanderthals chomped on a fair amount of veggies, too.
Researchers have had a tough time discerning the Neanderthals’ diet. They evaluated carbon and nitrogen isotopes in bones, but those only correspond to some general kinds of proteins. Even plant remains in Neanderthal teeth could have gotten there because a tasty animal carcass itself contained traces of a last vegetarian meal.
So the researchers relied on fool-proof evidence they studied Neanderthal fecal remains from a site in southern Spain called El Salt. Neanderthals made it their home about 50,000 years ago.
The researchers analyzed the samples for chemical compounds that can only result from metabolizing cholesterol from meat or from metabolizing plants. All five samples showed evidence of meat consumption. But two revealed the digestion of plants. Meaning that Neanderthals did try vegetation, likely tubers and nuts. The study is in the journal PLoS One.
The scientists intend to use the same technique to examine soil samples at a 1.8 million-year-old site in Tanzania. In the hopes that any remaining poop may deliver an ancestral-diet scoop.