Neanderthal Naturopaths Self-Medicated

By: The Scribe on Friday, November 9, 2012

Okay, so maybe they weren’t technically naturopaths (in any sense of the word, really)… but a cave in northern Spain that some time ago yielded evidence that historians interpreted as suggesting some Neanderthals were brain-eating cannibals now shows evidence that, well, these early people used herbal remedies and ate all their greens.

A picture of a Neanderthal manA new study done on the skeletal remains from the cave site of El Sidron in Asturias showed chemical and food traces left on the teeth of five individuals. Microscopic plant starch granules were found in tartar samples from the 50,000 year old teeth, and the cracks in the granules apparently indicated that the plants were roasted before consumption (and possibly that the Neanderthals really needed to floss after eating).

According to the dental investigation, starch and carbohydrates in the tooth tartar reveal that Neanderthals ate a considerable amount and wide variety of plants. The researchers were also surprised to find very few traces of meat-associated proteins.

And if it wasn’t enough to learn that our ancient ancestors would probably shop at Whole Foods instead of heading to a butcher shop, a team led by archaeologist Karen Hardy of Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona found that these folks were also giving themselves doses of medicinal plants.

Things like yarrow and camomile were a part of their regular diet (the Neanderthals, not the research team), both plants with little nutritional value but well known for their natural medicinal properties.

“We know that Neanderthals would find these plants bitter, so it is likely these plants must have been selected for reasons other than taste. It fits in well with the behavioural pattern of self-medication by today’s primates, and indeed many other animals,” Hardy said. “Camomile is very well known as a herbal treatment for nerves and stress, and for digestive disorders, while yarrow is used to treat colds and fevers and works as an antiseptic.”

The findings add to a growing picture of Neanderthals as plant-loving hippies—er, people—and it’s unlikely that the Spanish population studied was an anomaly, according to researchers. Even more interesting, is that these findings question the established thought of Neanderthals as inflexible in their dietary preferences, a reason often cited for modern humans’ ability to dominate the competitive landscape for food resources.


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