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Balanced Diet

Using fecal biomarkers, researchers from the University of La Laguna in Spain and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studied ancient poop from Neanderthals, finding that vegetables were a part of their diet.

Previous work had indicated that the extinct ancient hominins mainly chowed down on meat, with perhaps a sprinkling of plants.

In a new study appearing in PLOS One this week, MIT's Roger Everett Summons and his colleagues examined fecal samples from El Salt in Spain — dating back some 50,000 years — using a combination of gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to suss out biomarkers like sterols and stanols that reflect certain dietary processes.

While they found biomarkers indicative of a meaty diet, Summons and his colleagues also noted the presence of 5β-stigmastanol and 5β-epistigmastanol, which reflect the ingestion of plants as well.

"This wasn't a complete surprise," lead author Ainara Sistiaga, from MIT and La Laguna, tells the Los Angeles Times. "Neanderthals are primates after all. Our findings are solid evidence of a dietary component — plants — that so far has been missing in the fossil record."

Reuters notes that just what kind of plants were part of the Neanderthal diet hasn't yet been teased out.