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09 August 2012
To call someone a “Neanderthal” is hardly a ringing a endorsement. The phrase implies primitive and brutish qualities but as we learn more and more about Neanderthals it seems we might have been doing them a disservice. Now findings from a new report suggest that Neanderthals were using herbal medicine and eating a rounded diet as far back as 50,000 years ago.
Neanderthals evolved mainly in Europe in what is now France, Spain, Germany, and Russia. This occurred after their earlier ancestors left Africa between 800 000 and 400 000 years ago. They are thought to have lived on until around 30 000 years ago when they died out. Since early modern humans left Africa around 80 000 to 50 000 years ago, it is likely that humans and Neanderthals co-existed in Europe for some time. Recent research has confirmed that Neanderthals cross-bred with humans. Neanderthal genes are present in the genome of all modern humans except for those from sub-Saharan Africa. If the thought of Neanderthals swinging from branches of your family tree makes you squeamish then console yourself with the news that Neanderthals were probably more advanced than we have imagined.
It has been thought that Neanderthals were predominantly meat eaters but that belief has been challenged by new findings.
The research has been done on Neanderthal remains from El Sidron in northern Spain. The El Sidron site contains skeletal remains of at least thirteen Neanderthals dating to between 47,300 and 50,600 years old. From these remains ten samples of calculus were collected from teeth and then analysed using gas-chromotography and other analytical techniques to identify what had been trapped between the teeth of these Neanderthals.
The anlaysis revealed evidence of wood-fire smoke indicating that the Neanderthals were cooking their food. There was also evidence of roasted starch suggesting that they were consuming cooked plant foods. Perhaps most interesting was the discovery of coumarins and other chemicals that indicated the Neanderthals had been chewing chamomile and yarrow.
Previous genetic analysis has indicated that Neanderthals did have the capacity to taste the bitter end of the taste spectrum. Chamomile and yarrow would both have tasted bitter and unpleasant to the Neanderthal palate so they must have been consuming these plants for reasons other than pleasure. We can assume then that they were aware of the medicinal qualities of the plants. Chamomile for instance, soothes digestive and acts as a mild sedative.
So not only were the Neanderthals eating a varied diet that encompassed plants and meats, they were also using plants as medicines. Maybe the next time someone calls you a “Neanderthal” instead of being offended you can just say, “Thankyou very much”, they may after all be admiring your pioneering medical spirit.