If you want to know what an animal was eating, check its droppings. Of course if you want to know what an animal ate tens of thousands of years ago it’s a little harder. Poop doesn’t really fossilize well, but a recent dig in Spain has uncovered Neanderthal coprolites (poop fossils!) which show their diet was different than we thought.
Ainara Sistiaga, a geoarcheologist, has discovered the first fossilized Neanderthal poop at El Salt, Spain. The coprolites were discovered in abandoned fire pits at cooking sites (Gross, Neanderthals. That’s where you eat.) which date back 40,000 to 60,000 years.
As for the coprolites themselves, despite what some paleo diet enthusiasts may tell you, they did contain plant matter showing that Neanderthals — at least the ones at El Salt — were omnivores. Most of their diet was found to be cooked meat as indicated by the presence of coprostanol proportions in the coprolites, but 5β-stigmastanol in the fossilized feces shows that plants were digested as well. Sistiaga and her team published their findings in PLOS ONE.
The findings give us a an idea of what our ancestors ate, but for an even clearer picture Sistiaga is going to reach much further back and hunt for 2-million-year-old poop at Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge. The goal will be to better understand how diet has evolved with humanity over time.
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