Newly discovered 50,000-year-old poop proves the Neanderthals ate better than you do

Scientists may have found the world's oldest human excrement in Spain

Published June 26, 2014 2:10PM (EDT)

Vegetables  (shutterstock)
Vegetables (shutterstock)

Scientists discovered 50,000-year-old human poop while excavating the ancient Neanderthal site El Salt, located in Spain near the port of Alicante on the Mediterranean.

"The poop samples come from rock layers dated to roughly 50,000 years ago," reported USA Today. This sample is much older than any previously found human excrement, including possible 14,000-year-old poop from Oregon and 6,000- to 7,000-year-old poop from Turkey.

Besides being the oldest known coprolite (fossilized dung), this Neanderthal poop holds a different scientific significance: possible proof that Neanderthals ate plants. A study on the findings was published Monday in the journal PLOS One.

Previously data and zooarcheological studies concluded that Neanderthals were mainly carnivorous. This new evidence suggests otherwise. According to the Los Angeles Times:

"Using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, researchers studied the powdered samples for traces of stanols and sterols, lipids that are formed in the intestines when gut bacteria act on plant and animal matter.

"The authors said that samples taken from five different areas suggested that Neanderthals predominantly consumed meat, but also had significant plant intake."

"Neanderthals are primates after all," lead author Aniara Sistiaga told the Los Angeles Times. "Our findings are solid evidence of a dietary component — plants — that so far has been missing in the fossil record."

And while this finding didn't entirely surprise Sistiaga, who is an organic chemistry and Paleolithic archaeology researcher at MIT, they're still proving to be controversial.

Others have suggested that the plant components found in the fecal matter may have come from eating an animal's stomach containing vegetation. Or that the coprolite isn't even human -- but rather possibly from a bear.

Sistiaga thinks it is possible that the Neanderthal ate an animal stomach, but not probable. "In any case, this would represent another way to eat plants," Sistiaga explained.

This is not the only study to suggest that Neanderthals ate plants. Last year, researchers studying Neanderthal teeth, reported that the hardened calculus on the teeth could suggest that Neanderthals ate vegetation.

Neanderthals disappeared from the fossil record around 40,000 years ago, after inhabiting the Earth for around 300,000 years. Scientists are still unsure why the Neanderthals disappeared, while Homo sapiens flourished.

h/t the Los Angeles Times, USA Today

By Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email

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