Neanderthals ate their greens

A group of the starch granules from the Neanderthals' teeth. Image: University of Sydney

Our primitive relatives were more sophisticated than we thought.

An international team of scientists has found evidence that Neanderthals used plants for medicine and cooked them for food for the first time. These findings challenge the idea that the Neanderthals disappeared because they couldn’t adapt to their environment.

Instead the results of the study, which was published in Naturwissenschaften”“The Science of Nature, suggest that the Neanderthals had a good knowledge and a broader use of ingested plants than is usually suggested by stable isotope analysis. These results are surprising, as Neanderthals were thought to be predominantly meat-eaters, according to professor Les Copeland from the University of Sydney.

“(The) long-held belief was that Neanderthals were more primitive than modern humans and their diet was predominantly meat,” he says. “They seem to have been more sophisticated in understanding their surroundings than first thought.”

The team analysed material from the remains of five Neanderthals from the 50,000-year-old El Sidrón site in Northern Spain using enzymic tests and a morphological analysis of the plant microfossils found on their teeth. The starch granules and carbohydrate markers, which were still subject to enzyme activity after all this time, indicate that they had been eating starchy foods like tubers, roots, nuts, cereals and grasses.

Using pyrolysis gas-chromatography-mass spectrometry, they also found chemical evidence consistent with the presence of bitumen or oil shale and some of the chemicals formed in woods smoke. “This, along with the fact that we found some of the starch granules were cracked and roasted from our microscopic observations, indicates that the Neanderthals were cooking up their plant foods,” Copeland explains.

Other plant compounds, such azulenes and coumarins, on their teeth may have come from plants such as yarrow and chamomile. These bitter-tasting plants have little nutritional value and Neanderthals had the gene for detecting bitter tastes, so there must have been a reason for eating them. These plants can actually be used as medication, so they may have been using them in a more sophisticated fashion than they’ve been given credit for, Copeland says.

“Although the extent of the Neanderthal’s botanical knowledge and their ability to self-medicate must of course remain open to speculation, it’s not unusual for self-medication to occur in higher primates, so it’s reasonable that these close relatives of modern humans could have used plants medicinally.”

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  1. Neanderthal like to use this techniques as they had gradually become aware of several edible things and they also started to learn the importance of grain seeds

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