New evidence shows that Neanderthals understood the medicinal value of certain foods

Our ideas about Neanderthals are steadily changing. We've learned that they had the capacity for language, looked after their sick, buried their dead, and decorated their bodies. But we still don't know much about their eating habits.

Anthropologists have suspected that they predominately ate meat — but a recent analysis reveals that their diet was far more sophisticated than that. After conducting chemical analysis on the teeth of Neanderthals, it's becoming clear that their dietary habits were extremely sophisticated and complex.

New evidence shows that Neanderthals understood the medicinal value of certain foods

Researchers from the Catalan Institute of Research and Advanced Studies, the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, and the University of York, U.K., took dental samples from the remains of five Neanderthals. By using various spectrometry techniques, they were able to identify a number of organic components in the teeth. These compounds indicated signs of wood-fire smoke, a range of cooked starchy foods (including two plants known today for their medicinal qualities), and bitumen. The researchers suggest that the discovery of starch granules and carbohydrate markers offer evidence for the consumption of plants (like azulenes and coumarins) as well as nuts, grasses, and green vegetables.

A recent article in Popular Archeology goes over the finding:

New evidence shows that Neanderthals understood the medicinal value of certain foods

Lead author Karen Hardy...said: "The varied use of plants we identified suggests that the Neanderthal occupants of El Sidrón had a sophisticated knowledge of their natural surroundings which included the ability to select and use certain plants for their nutritional value and for self-medication. While meat was clearly important, our research points to an even more complex diet than has previously been supposed."

Earlier research by members of this team had shown that the Neanderthals in El Sidrón had the bitter taste perception gene. Now trapped within dental calculus researchers found molecular evidence that one individual had eaten bitter tasting plants.

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 suggestion that Neanderthals were self-medicating shows just how sophisticated their culture must have been. At this point, any notion that Neanderthals were just dumb brutes must simply be thrown out the window.

Their results were published in Naturwissenschaften – The Science of Nature.

Top image via Scot.net. Inset images via Archaeology Today.