Washington, April 29 : Microfossils of plant material that investigators found in the dental plaque of 35,000-year-old Neanderthal teeth, which were unearthed in Iraq, has provided the first direct evidence that apart from a meat diet, the human ancestors also ate plants.
Neanderthals lived in parts of Europe and Asia for more than 200,000 years and disappeared around 30,000 years ago.
Little is known about their diet, although it's widely assumed that they ate more than just meat.
Much of what is known about their eating habits has come from indirect evidence, such as animal remains found at Neanderthal sites and chemical signatures called isotopes detected in their teeth.
According to a report in National Geographic News, the new hard evidence is seeds and other plant material was found by investigators in the dental plaque of a Neanderthal skeleton.
The skeleton, which the investigators studied, was discovered in the 1950s at the cave site of Shanidar, in the Zagros Mountains of northeastern Iraq.
"The formation of dental plaque traps the plant microfossils from food particles within the matrix of the plaque deposits, so the microfossils are protected and are a unique record of the plant foods put into the mouth," said Amanda Henry, a graduate student in hominid paleobiology at The George Washington University. "So we can say with confidence that this individual Neanderthal ate plants," she added.
Dubbed Shanidar III, the skeleton is that of a male possibly in his 40s and includes four teeth and several bone fragments.
The discoverers of the Shanidar III, Ralph and Rose Solecki, sampled the soil around the skeletons for pollen. Analyses revealed elevated levels of pollen grains of unusual plants around one of the skeletons.
"The Soleckis interpreted this as strong evidence for the dietary use of plants, and even took it a step further and argued that this was evidence of intentional burial with flowers as grave goods," said Henry.
This prompted Henry to sample the teeth of Shanidar III in 2007.
Three of the teeth had excellent preserved plaque that contained microscopic fossils of plant material, explained Henry. "We know that this individual ate a variety of plants, including grass seeds, more commonly called grains today," she added.
According to Henry, the finding suggests that though characterizing Neanderthals as obligate meat-eaters may be wrong, but there is still a lot more work to be done on this issue.