Poorly Neanderthals chomped on medicinal plants

Neanderthals cooked and ate their veggies and even used medicinal plants when they were ill, an examination of their teeth has found.

Using the same technique that revealed the human ancestor Australopithecus sediba ate bark – analysis of microscopic bits of food trapped between the teeth – they’ve established that Neanderthals cooked plants, including bitter-tasting ones that have medicinal properties.

Until recently, Neanderthals, who disappeared between 30,000 and 24,000 years ago, were thought to be predominantly meat-eaters.

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.

And, they say, they’ve found starch granules and carbohydrate markers in the samples, evidence for plant compounds such as azulenes and coumarins and possible evidence for nuts, grasses and even green vegetables.

Evidence for cooked carbohydrates came from both the cracked/roasted starch granules observed microscopically and molecular evidence for cooking and exposure to wood smoke or smoked food – a range of chemical markers including methyl esters, phenols, and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons.

Most interestingly, trapped within dental calculus, researchers found molecular evidence that one individual had eaten bitter tasting plants.

“The evidence indicating this individual was eating bitter-tasting plants such as yarrow and camomile with little nutritional value is surprising,” says Dr Stephen Buckley of the University of York.

“We know that Neanderthals would find these plants bitter, so it is likely these plants must have been selected for reasons other than taste.”