Neanderthals cooked veggies and used plants for medicine

19 July 2012

Neanderthal remains found in El Sidrón Cave. [Image: CSIC Comunicación]
Neanderthal remains found in El Sidrón Cave. [Image: CSIC Comunicación]

Neanderthals were more sophisticated than we'd thought previously, with the first evidence that they cooked plants for food and used plants for medicine found by an international team of scientists, including Professor Les Copeland from the University of Sydney's Faculty of Agriculture and Environment.

The research, published in the prestigious journal Naturwissenschaften - The Science of Nature, 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 team analysed 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.

The team, including researchers from Spain, the UK 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.

"We found starch granules and carbohydrate markers in the samples, which indicate that these Neanderthals ate starchy foods like tubers, roots, nuts, cereals and grasses," explained Professor Copeland.

"These starch granules we found and analysed from the teeth of the Neanderthals at El Sidrón are the oldest starch granules ever to be confirmed using a biochemical test.

"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."

The results indicate that Neanderthals had a broader use of ingested plants than is often suggested by stable isotope analysis.

"The varied use of plants that we have identified suggests that the Neanderthal occupants of El Sidron had a complex knowledge of their natural surroundings which included the ability to select and use certain plants.

"Although the extent of the Neanderthal's botanical knowledge and their ability to self-medicate must of course remain open to speculation, it's not unusual for self-medication to occur in higher primates, so it's reasonable that these close relatives of modern humans could have used plants medicinally."

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