Insight into Diet of Neanderthals by GC–MS Analysis of Faeces - - Chromatography Online
Insight into Diet of Neanderthals by GC–MS Analysis of Faeces

The Column
Volume 10, Issue 15, pp. 5

Photo Credit: Westend61/Getty Images

Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Massachusetts, USA, and University of La Laguna in Spain, have performed gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC–MS) analysis of Neanderthal faeces to demonstrate that Neanderthals could have eaten fruit and vegetables and were not necessarily dependent on a meat diet. According to the study published in the journal PLOS ONE,
this is significant because it is thought that the specific diet o fNeanderthals could have contributed towards the species extinction (1).

Neanderthals lived on the Earth from around 230,000 to 40,000 years ago before becoming extinct. The reasons for their disappearance has not been established, but it has been theorized that their dependence on meat meant that the modern human species was able to out compete by increasing the variety of foods consumed. Lead author Ainara Sistiaga told The Column:

“I have been interested in Neanderthal diet since I started college, we are what we eat. It’s important to understand all aspects of why humanity has come to rule the planet the way it does. A lot of that has to do with improved nutrition over time.”

Sediment samples were collected from the archaeological site El Salt in Alicante, Spain, dating back to 50,000 BP that is known to have been occupied by Neanderthals. Soil samples were collected from different sediment layers that were then extracted using solvents to isolate organic matter prior to analysis performed by GC–MS. The focus of the analysis was on sterols and stanols that are stable throughout the food chain, specifically 5β-stigmastanol and coprostanol that are indicative of cholesterol and phytosterol breakdown in the intestine of mammals, respectively.

Four out of five samples contained coprostanol, indicating cholesterol breakdown and enforcing the theory of a diet dominated by meat, but plant sterol metabolites including 5β-stigmastanol were also identified albeit at lower levels indicating vegetable consumption. Sistiaga said: “The results of this study have several important implications. First, they provide the first direct evidence of omnivory among Neanderthals. Second, they represent the oldest human faecal matter identified using geochemical methods. Third, this is the first time that the faecal biomarker approach is applied in palaeodietary research. This paper also contributes to our knowledge on the diet of Neanderthals and their cholesterol metabolism.” — B.D.

1. A. Sistiaga, C. Mallol, B. Galván, and R.E. Summons, PLOS ONE 9(6), e101045. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0101045 (2014).

This story originally appeared in The Column. Click here to view that issue.


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