Researchers have found traces of the oldest feces in a Spanish cave, which reveals that Neanderthals consumed more vegetables than previously believed.

The study led by Ainara Sistiaga, a visiting researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), required the team to collect several samples from the remains of a 50,000-year old campfire in El Salt, Spain, which is known to be a Neanderthal habitat. The samples were analyzed by the team a year later at an MIT laboratory.

The researchers deployed gas chromatography to segregate the chemicals in the ancient fecal samples. This technique was combined with mass spectrometry to gain a better understanding of which molecules were present and what was the quantity. The team found a concentration of coprostanol, which suggested that some samples were fossilized feces.  

"We show that Neanderthals, like anatomically modern humans, have a high rate of conversion of cholesterol to coprostanol related to the presence of required bacteria in their guts. Analysis of five sediment samples from different occupation floors suggests that Neanderthals predominantly consumed meat, as indicated by high coprostanol proportions, but also had significant plant intake, as shown by the presence of 5β-stigmastanol," note the researchers.

For the uninitiated, the Neanderthals are an ancient species who are related to humans. They stayed in Europe and central Asia, co-existing with Homo Sapiens for a period before eventually dying out.

Previous studies have opined that the Neanderthals were carnivorous and predominantly followed a meat-oriented diet, which is supported by evidence of isotopes found in their bones. However, the current study is the first to show the link between plants and the digestive system of the Neanderthals.

"It is the first direct evidence of plant consumption among Neanderthals," revealed Sistiaga, to The Huffington Post in an email. "This species is traditionally pictured as highly carnivorous."

In 2010, a research conducted by Alison Brooks, professor of anthropology at George Washington University, revealed fossilized remains of plant material on the teeth of the Neanderthals. However, at the time, experts suggested that these remnants could have been owing to Neanderthals eating the stomachs of animals they hunted.

The current study, however, establishes that while Neanderthals consumed meat, they also had vegetables in their diet and gives a new perspective to their habits and evolution.

The study was published on Wednesday, June 25 in the journal PLOS One.

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