Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus

Abstract

Neanderthals disappeared sometime between 30,000 and 24,000 years ago. Until recently, Neanderthals were understood to have been predominantly meat-eaters; however, a growing body of evidence suggests their diet also included plants. We present the results of a study, in which sequential thermal desorption-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (TD-GC-MS) and pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (Py-GC-MS) were combined with morphological analysis of plant microfossils, to identify material entrapped in dental calculus from five Neanderthal individuals from the north Spanish site of El Sidrón. Our results provide the first molecular evidence for inhalation of wood-fire smoke and bitumen or oil shale and ingestion of a range of cooked plant foods. We also offer the first evidence for the use of medicinal plants by a Neanderthal individual. The varied use of plants that we have 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.

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Acknowledgments

SEM was conducted at the Imaging and Cytometry Unit, University of York. Stephen Buckley was funded by grant WT074315, TD/Py-GC-MS was conducted in the Department of Civil Engineering and Geosciences Newcastle University; Paul Donohoe and Ian Harrison are thanked for technical assistance. Field work was supported by Consejería de Cultura del Principado de Asturias, and some technical aspects by Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación, Spain, grant CGL2006-02131. Thanks to Megazyme International for providing the starch assay kit and to William Milliken, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for his confirmation that yarrow and camomile are most likely to have been ingested for medicinal purposes as they have little nutritional value. We thank the anonymous reviewers for their suggestions and we extend our thanks to Dr Joann Fletcher for her many suggested literary improvements.

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Communicated by: Sven Thatje

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Hardy, K., Buckley, S., Collins, M.J. et al. Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus. Naturwissenschaften 99, 617–626 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00114-012-0942-0

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Keywords

  • Neanderthals
  • El Sidrón
  • Dental calculus
  • Diet
  • Self-medication