For years it was believed the Neanderthals were carnivores who devoured meat.
But new research has found that not only did our primitive ancestors eat a lot of greens, they were able to cook them as well.
It was widely believed that the limited meat-only diet of Neanderthals and their lack of cooking skills contributed to their extinction.
Their rivals Homo Sapiens, our direct ancestors, who lived alongside them were more adaptable as they had a wider variety of food sources to choose from.
But a microscopic analysis of the fossilised teeth of Neanderthals reveals their diet was more varied than previously thought – with their vegetable intake including beans, roots and tubers and palm dates.
The evidence, from cave sites in Iraq and Belgium, also suggests Neanderthals controlled fire in much the same way as Homo Sapiens.
Many of the plant remains had undergone physical changes that make scientists believe they were cooked before they were eaten.
Researchers are still trying to identify remains of other plants on the teeth.
Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers led by Dr Dolores Piperno, from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, said: ‘Our results indicate that Neanderthals made use of the diverse plant foods available in their local environment and transformed them into more easily digestible foodstuffs, in part through cooking them, suggesting an overall sophistication in Neanderthal dietary regimes.’
Neanderthals are thought to have migrated from Africa between 300,000 to 400,000 years ago. They were followed 70,000 years ago by Homo Sapiens, but around 30,000 years ago, Neanderthals died out – the exact reason for which remains a mystery.
Excavations carried out as part of the Gibraltar Caves Project had revealed that seafood figured in the Neanderthal diet.
Hearth embers, shells, animal bones and the remains of marine species were found in the Gorham and Vanguard caves, on Gibraltar’s eastern flank, by an international team of scientists led by Chris Stringer from London’s Natural History Museum and Clive Finlayson from the Gibraltar Museum.
An impression of the Neanderthals’ coastal foraging habits and diet was provided by the discovery of fossiled bones and shells from dolphins, monk seals and mussels alongside the more expected bear, ibex, red deer and wild boar.
Many of the bones showed signs of damage from cutting and peeling, and the mussels were apparently warmed on a fire to open them up.
Earlier this week, scientists revealed a new variety of humans called Denisovans lived alongside Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals.
The cavemen were identified from DNA taken from a tooth and finger bone found in a cave in Siberia.
It was found in the Denisova cave in the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia in 2008 alongside ornaments and jewellery.
Provisional tests published earlier this year suggested that the remains belonged to an entirely new species.
The Denisovans were physically different from the thickset Neanderthals and modern humans, although they also walked upright.