July 19, 2012

Crafty El Sidrón Neandertals exploited plants for food and medicine

An international team of researchers, led by the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and the University of York, has provided the first molecular evidence that Neanderthals not only ate a range of cooked plant foods, but also understood its nutritional and medicinal qualities.

Until recently Neanderthals, who disappeared between 30,000 and 24,000 years ago, were thought to be predominantly meat-eaters. However, evidence of dietary breadth is growing as more sophisticated analyses are undertaken.

Researchers from Spain, the UK and Australia combined pyrolysis gas-chromatography-mass spectrometry with morphological analysis of plant microfossils to identify material trapped in dental calculus (calcified dental plaque) from five Neanderthals from the north Spanish site of El Sidrón.


Dr Stephen Buckley, a Research Fellow at the University of York's BioArCh research facility, said: "The evidence indicating this individual was eating bitter-tasting plants such as yarrow and camomile with little nutritional value is surprising. We know that Neanderthals would find these plants bitter, so it is likely these plants must have been selected for reasons other than taste."

The researchers say evidence for cooked carbohydrates is confirmed by both the cracked/roasted starch granules observed microscopically and the molecular evidence for cooking and exposure to wood smoke or smoked food in the form of a range of chemical markers including methyl esters, phenols, and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons found in dental calculus.

The study also provides evidence that the starch granules reported from El Sidrón represent the oldest granules ever to be confirmed using a biochemical test, while ancient bacteria found embedded in the calculus offers the potential for future studies in oral health.

The archaeological cave site of El Sidrón, located in the Asturias region of northern Spain, contains the best collection of Neanderthal remains found in the Iberian Peninsula and one of the most important active sites in the world. Discovered in 1994, it contains around 2,000 skeletal remains of at least 13 individuals dating back around 47,300 to 50,600 years.
NATURWISSENSCHAFTEN 2012, DOI: 10.1007/s00114-012-0942-0

Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus

Karen Hardy et al.



Annie Mouse said...

This gave me the a delightful image of a bunch of neanderthals sitting around drinking delicate cups of camomile tea (which incidentally is not bitter at all).

Anonymous said...

Yarrow contains thujone, like wormwood, and eating too much can get you high - so doubtless those Nandys knew how to get stoned ...

Anonymous said...

As time passes we are beginning to know more and more about other hominids and the way they lived. Neanderthals are no longer those dumb non-humans who hunted wild beasts bare-handed instead of using hunting tools that we once thought of.

Great article.