The Neanderthal meal: a new perspective using faecal biomarkers

Ainara Sistiaga, Carolina Mallol, Bertila Galván, Roger Everett Summons

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

72 Citations (Scopus)
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Abstract

Neanderthal dietary reconstructions have, to date, been based on indirect evidence and may underestimate the significance of plants as a food source. While zooarchaeological and stable isotope data have conveyed an image of Neanderthals as largely carnivorous, studies on dental calculus and scattered palaeobotanical evidence suggest some degree of contribution of plants to their diet. However, both views remain plausible and there is no categorical indication of an omnivorous diet. Here we present direct evidence of Neanderthal diet using faecal biomarkers, a valuable analytical tool for identifying dietary provenance. Our gas chromatography-mass spectrometry results from El Salt (Spain), a Middle Palaeolithic site dating to ca. 50,000 yr. BP, represents the oldest positive identification of human faecal matter. 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. This study highlights the applicability of the biomarker approach in Pleistocene contexts as a provider of direct palaeodietary information and supports the opportunity for further research into cholesterol metabolism throughout human evolution.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere101045
Number of pages6
JournalPLoS ONE
Volume9
Issue number6
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 25 Jun 2014
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2014. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.

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