Neanderthals. Few labels applied to humanity’s ancestors are more loaded with meaning. Refer to those ancient human precursors, and most people conjure up an image of club-toting, knuckle-dragging cavemen whose “lifestyle” consisted of gnawing on hunks of mammoth meat, in between stomping around in fur loin cloths and waving torches to fend off saber-tooth tigers.

Even though the Neanderthals who once roamed across much of Europe are believed to have gone extinct some 40,000 years ago (some scientists speculate that early human tribes killed them off), the fossil record reveals they actually had large, complex brains as big as ours. They fashioned stone tools, lived in nuclear families and likely developed a serviceable, if primitive, form of language.

But while researchers have studied their remains for decades, they never really knew what the Neanderthals ate.

Until now, and the results proved to be surprising.

Different Climate, Different Diet

As a report in the scientific journal Nature noted, advances in gene-sequencing technology allowed a group of scientists to analyze the hardened plaque left behind on the fossilized teeth of five Neanderthal specimens recently discovered in Spain and in Belgium.

And yeah: they were found in caves, but that’s not the interesting part of the discovery.

At Spy cave in Belgium, the research team of scientists from Europe, the U.K., Canada and Australia determined that the Neanderthal diet in that region was heavily meat -based, including evidence that they ate “woolly rhinoceros and wild sheep.”

(Uh, guys — there were no domesticated sheep 40,000 years ago).

That much was to be expected.

However, the diet of Neanderthals found in the El Sidrón cave in Spain contained virtually no meat. In fact, they apparently lived on a diet of mushrooms, pine nuts and forest moss — pretty much what most members of PETA insist the rest of us should be subsisting on in modern times.

Because the specimens analyzed were limited to just a few individuals rather than an entire population, the scientists cautioned that it’s hard to draw too many detailed conclusions about the Neanderthals’ dietary preferences. But one fact is clear: The Spanish vegetarians were what are called “opportunistic” omnivores.

In other words, they lived off the foods that were easiest to gather and consume, in the same way that the Native tribes that once populated the Pacific Northwest primarily ate salmon and shellfish. Why? It was the easiest food to secure, that’s why.

One other important conclusion that we might draw from this study of ancient diets: Neanderthals ate 100% local food, ie, what they could hunt, gather and harvest within walking distance of where they lived.

That fact is typically glossed over when today’s activists start spouting off about the urgency of adopting a vegan lifestyle. You can make the case that humanity’s ancestors — at least the ones who lived in what is now modern-day Spain — were vegetarians, but only if you also specify that their diet depended totally on locally available nourishment.

That means the promoters of vegetarianism for people living in, say, upstate New York where I grew up, would have to figure out a way to live through the four or five months of winter on dried moss and acorns — and that ain’t gonna happen.

You need meat to survive the annual deep freeze, which certainly was the case as the glaciers receded thousands of years ago and the ancestors of the Iroquois tribes who once lived in the region settled in along the shores of the Great Lakes.

The “natural” diet of certain humans and Neanderthals may have been vegetarian, but only if abundant food was available close by and year-round.

This is decidedly not the case for today’s born-again believers in veganism, who consider tropical fruits and jet-freighted produce from halfway around the world to be perfectly acceptable fare.

If Neanderthals indeed could talk, I have a feeling they’d have a word for these 21st century veggies:

“Ugh.”

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, veteran journalist and commentator.