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50,000-year-old poop reveals secrets of human guts

Published Feb 8th, 2021 11:28PM EST
neanderthal poop

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  • A long, long time ago — 50,000 years ago, to be exact — some Neanderthals pooped in what is present-day Spain. 
  • Recently recovered, the poop has been studied extensively and scientists have been able to identify a number of beneficial gut microbes within the samples.
  • A new research paper on the discovery and subsequent study reveals that the relationship between humans and beneficial microbes goes back to our distant ancestors.

Over the many millions of years since our human ancestors first began roaming the planet, we’ve developed complex and vital relationships with all manner of organisms. We hunted some of them, and some of them hunted us, and sometimes we entered into two-sided relationships that benefited both parties. But of all the relationships we’ve forged over the years, our partnership with the tiny microorganisms that live inside our guts is one of the most important.

Studying the history of the microbes in our gut has been difficult for some obvious reasons. The biggest hurdle is the difficulty of finding samples of ancient human feces that retains traces of the microorganisms. In Spain, researchers sifting through a site that is thought to have been a Neanderthal settlement of sorts have identified 50,000-year-old poop and the tiny organisms that came out with it.

Today we know that gut health is largely dependent on a vibrant collection of microbes that live inside our digestive system. It’s this microbiome that ensures we avoid gastrointestinal distress, and the health of our microbes has been implicated in everything from the risk of developing heart disease to the prevalence of depression and anxiety. Yeah, it’s incredibly important, and understanding when that relationship was first forged could help us better understand why keeping our tiny microbes happy seems so important.

In studying the samples from Spain, researchers behind a new paper published in Communications Biology were able to identify dozens of bacteria that are known to inhabit the guts of modern humans. That’s extremely telling, as it suggests that these bacteria have played a role in the advancement of the human species for tens of thousands of years, and probably even longer.

“According to our findings, bacterial genera belonging to families known to be part of the modern human gut microbiome are abundantly represented only across unit X samples, showing that well-known beneficial gut commensals, such as Blautia, Dorea, Roseburia, Ruminococcus, Faecalibacterium, and Bifidobacterium already populated the intestinal microbiome of Homo since as far back as the last common ancestor between humans and Neanderthals,” the researchers write.

Going forward, increased attention on gut health and our gut microbiome may yield new advancements in treating a variety of illnesses. Processed foods and some of the things that have become common in modern diets are likely working against us, and it may only be a matter of time before we understand just how devastating those foods really are to our physical and mental wellbeing.

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