The techniques of earth science have been applied to archaeology, and the results shed light on the diet of Neanderthals:

Jennifer Chu | MIT News Office
June 25, 2014

The popular conception of the Neanderthal as a club-wielding carnivore is, well, rather primitive, according to a new study conducted at MIT. Instead, our prehistoric cousin may have had a more varied diet that, while heavy on meat, also included plant tissues, such as tubers and nuts.

Scientists from MIT and the University of La Laguna in Spain have identified human fecal remains from El Salt, a known site of Neanderthal occupation in southern Spain that dates back 50,000 years. The researchers analyzed each sample for metabolized versions of animal-derived cholesterol, as well as phytosterol, a cholesterol-like compound found in plants. While all samples contained signs of meat consumption, two samples showed traces of plants — the first direct evidence that Neanderthals may have enjoyed an omnivorous diet.

“We have passed through different phases in our interpretation of Neanderthals,” says Ainara Sistiaga, a graduate student at the University of La Laguna who led the analysis as a visiting student at MIT. She and her colleagues have published their study in the journal PLoS ONE. Read the entire article at MIT News.

Ainara Sistiaga did her geoarchaeological analysis in the lab of MIT prof. Roger Summons, who studies molecular biomarkers that can be extracted from rocks and sediments. You can learn more about the techniques Sistiaga used in Prof. Summons course Molecular Biogeochemistry on OCW.