Spanish scientists examine world's oldest human poo

Posted Jun 26, 2014 by Anne Sewell
On examining 50,000-year-old human excrement, geoarchaeologists have figured out that our Neanderthal ancestors were probably omnivorous, or vegetarian. The remains were found at the El Salt Neanderthal site in Alicante in eastern Spain.
Representation of a neanderthal man.
Representation of a neanderthal man.
The excrement, found to be of human origin, was discovered on top of an ancient campfire and is, according to scientists, the oldest human feces ever found in Spain.
The discovery has given scientists a new insight into the diet of our prehistoric ancestors. If you imagined neanderthals bashing deer and buffalo and chomping the resulting flesh, imagine again.
The Local interviewed Ainara Sistiaga, one of the scientists involved in the study.
Speaking of the discovery, Sistiaga said, “We were expecting to find lipids (organic compounds) from their cooking on the campfire, but instead we found samples belonging to human feces.”
“I doubt they ‘went to the toilet’ there while the fire was ablaze, or that they used the feces as fuel for that matter," she added, “It’s more likely that they used the campfire as a ‘loo’ once they had moved their settlement elsewhere.”
Now Sistiaga, a scientist at the La Laguna University in Tenerife in the Spanish Canary Islands has been working together with researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to try and determine what, exactly the ancient poo contained and it seems it is the result of eating plant-based food.
“Two of the samples we took contained compounds that are produced when molecules found in plant-based foods are broken down," Sistiaga said mentioning that the food was probably fruit and nuts.
"Neanderthals ate what was available in different situations, seasons and climates," Sistiaga added.
“We don’t know yet how much of a varied diet Neanderthals had, but our study is the first direct evidence that they may have been omnivorous rather than carnivorous, as was previously thought,” Sistiaga concluded.
The researchers now plan to use similar techniques to analyze soil samples taken from Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, where there is a 1.8-million-year-old site containing some of the earliest evidence of human ancestry.
Spanish sources:
El Mundo