Neanderthals Cooked Vegetables And Used Plants For Medicine

Neanderthals were more sophisticated than we’d thought previously, with the first evidence that they cooked plants for food and used plants for medicine.

AsianScientist (Jul. 23, 2012) – Neanderthals were more sophisticated than we’d thought previously, with the first evidence that they cooked plants for food and used plants for medicine.

The research, published in the journal Naturwissenschaften, provides the first molecular evidence from Neanderthal remains for inhalation of wood-fire smoke and oil shale, and ingestion of a range of cooked plant foods.

The paper also includes the first evidence for the use of medicinal plants by a Neanderthal individual.

Neanderthals are hominids in the same genus as modern humans – Homo – who became extinct between 30,000 and 24,000 years ago.

Using remains from five Neanderthals from the El Sidrón site in northern Spain, the international team of scientists analyzed material trapped in dental calculus, finding evidence for both food plants and medicinal plants on the Neanderthal teeth.

“Our results are really surprising, as Neanderthals had been thought to be predominantly meat-eaters. Just over the past several years there has been evidence of more plants in Neanderthal diets. It now looks like they had broader diets than we’d thought and our results show they even appear to be using plants for medicinal purposes,” said Professor Les Copeland from the University of Sydney, who was a co-author on the study.

The team, including researchers from Spain, the U.K., and Australia, used pyrolysis gas-chromatography-mass spectrometry combined with morphological analysis of plant microfossils to identify the material trapped in dental calculus on Neanderthal teeth.

They found starch granules and carbohydrate markers in the samples, which indicate that these Neanderthals ate starchy foods like tubers, roots, nuts, cereals and grasses. The starch granules at El Sidrón are the oldest starch granules ever to be confirmed using a biochemical test, Copeland said.

“We also found chemical evidence consistent with wood-fire smoke and bitumen or oil shale entrapped within the dental calculus. This, along with the fact that we found some of the starch granules were cracked and roasted from our microscopic observations, indicates that the Neanderthals were cooking up their plant foods.

“What’s really astounding is we also found evidence for plant compounds such azulenes and coumarins which may have came from plants such as yarrow and chamomile. These bitter plants have little nutritional value and aren’t very tasty, but can be used for medication, so it looks like Neanderthals were using plants in a more sophisticated fashion than we’d given them credit for.”

Although the extent of the Neanderthal’s botanical knowledge and their ability to self-medicate must of course remain open to speculation, it not unusual for self-medication to occur in higher primates, Copeland said.

The article can be found at: Hardy K et al. (2012) Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus.


Source: University of Sydney; Photo: CSIC Comunicación.
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