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50,000-Year-Old Poop Shows Neanderthals Ate Plants

Jun 26, 2014 02:58 AM EDT

World's oldest human poop shows that Neanderthals ate plants, a new study shows.

The study, conducted by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of La Laguna and colleagues, shows that Neanderthals weren't just meat-eaters, but also ate plants.

Neanderthals separated from the primate line that gave rise to modern humans around 400,000 years ago. The group then moved to Eurasia and completely disappeared from the world about 30,000 years ago.

Neanderthals were considered meat-eating brutes with low intelligence levels. But, recent research has shown that these ancient human cousins ate a varied diet that included plants and fish. Neanderthals were also capable of making tools and even organizing their living spaces.

For the study, researchers analyzed fecal biomarkers from five samples from El Salt, Spain. The poop samples are 50,000 years old and researchers used them to look for specific cholesterols. Fossilized fecal material is called coprolites.

Researchers found high levels of coprostanol, which is a type of lipid created when the gut breaks down cholesterol made by animals. Surprisingly, researchers also found traces of another biomarker 5B-stigmastanol, which is a breakdown product of a cholesterol-like substance in plants. The study shows that Neanderthals were omnivores, Livescience reported.

"This study represents the first approach to Neanderthal diet through the analysis of fecal markers found in archaeological sediment," said Ainara Sistiaga from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, according to a news release.

Not everybody is convinced though. Experts said that the poop markers used in the study might have belonged to bears and wild boars. "It is notoriously difficult to identify the species of coprolites, so it is far from secure that the coprolites they worked on are from humans," said Michael Richards, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, according to Livescience. Richards wasn't part of the research.

The study is published in the journal PLOS One

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