Neanderthal dietary reconstructions have, to date, been based on archaeological evidence, stable isotope data and studies of dental calculus. These suggest that they were predominantly meat eaters, although plant foods made a contribution to their diet. Hitherto, there has been no direct evidence for an omnivorous diet.
A new study, published in the open access journal PLoS One has presented direct evidence of Neanderthal diet using faecal biomarkers, which are a valuable analytical tool for identifying diet. Researchers applied gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy techniques to coprolites (fossil faeces) from the Neanderthal site of El Salt at Alicante, Spain. The coprolites were recovered from sediments gathered from a number of levels at the site, which was repeatedly occupied by Neanderthals between 60,000 and 45,000 years ago.
The team focused on chemical processes associated with the action of bacteria in the gut. They found a high proportion of coprostanol, which the gut bacteria produce from cholesterol and which is associated with the consumption of meat. However, they also recorded significant quantities of 5β-stigmastanol, which is associated with plant consumption.
Further tests were necessary to confirm that the coprolites were of human origin. The conversion of cholesterol into coprostanol is not unique to humans, but related molecules were also identified in proportions that ruled out other omnivores.
1. Ainara Sistiaga, A., Mallol, C., Galván, B. & Everett Summons, R., The Neanderthal Meal: A New Perspective Using Faecal Biomarkers. PLoS One 9 (6), e101045 (2014).