Did Neanderthals Self-Medicate?
I first came across the work of Dr Karen Hardy (ICREA, Spain) and colleagues on ancient dental calculus at the European Association of Archaeologist‘s annual conference in Helsinki last August. In a session entitled ‘Not Just Meat: The Role of Plants in Palaeonutritional Assessment‘ Dr Hardy spoke about the use of plants during the Palaeolithic and the possibility of Neanderthal* self-medication. I must admit that, until then, I had been totally unaware of this innovative research in archaeological science, but I instantly became fascinated by it. I am very excited by the possibilities it offers to the study and understanding of past human use of plants and I look forward to reading more on the subject as further research results emerge.
So how did Hardy et al. (2012) come to the conclusion that Neanderthals were consuming plants and self-medicating during the Palaeolithic? The clues, it turned out, were to be found in their dental calculus.
Calculus, the “mineralized dental plaque which forms both above (supragingival) and below (subgingival) the gumline” (White 1997: 509), was, using a number of techniques, removed from the teeth of five Neanderthal individuals excavated at the site of El Sidrón (Asturias, Spain). The material observed in the extracted dental calculus samples was later identified and revealed that approximately 50,000 years ago all of these Neanderthal adults and juveniles were regularly consuming starchy foods, that is to say, plant carbohydrates.
Until fairly recently it was thought that Neanderthals ate little or no plant foods, this view largely biased by the better preservation of animal bones in the archaeological record in comparison to plant remains. Hardy et al.‘s study (2012), however, together with a number of others, are gradually showing that plant foods likely played a more important role in Neanderthal and early modern human diets than previously envisaged. I wonder how the ‘Paleodiet‘ creators and supporters will react to these new findings…
In addition to detecting the consumption of starchy foods, Dr Hardy and colleagues also noted that some of the plants eaten by the Neanderthals had been cooked. In the case of ‘Adult 2’ (young male) and ‘Adult 4’ (young adult female) the cooking of foods was also revealed by wood smoke traces identified in the mineralized tooth plaque. ‘Adult 4’ is also likely to have been consuming smoked food although not meat as no evidence of lipids from animal sources were noted in her dental calculus.
The analysis of the organic compounds recovered from ‘Adult 4’s’ upper left second molar also revealed that this young woman consumed two ‘interesting’ plant species: yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla). These plants are ‘interesting’ in the sense that, from a purely nutritional point of view, they provide very little to the human body. They are, however, thought to possess medicinal properties and are widely used to provide relief to a number of ailments.
According to WebMD, yarrow is used, amongst other things, to treat high fever, the common cold, and diarrhoea. In some cases, people chew fresh yarrow leaves to relieve toothache. Chamomile (tea), on the other hand, is best known for providing relief to stomach pains as well as for its sedative properties. So could it be that this young woman suffered from these aches and pains and self-medicated to provide relief? The answer is probably yes. More data from other individuals, however, are necessary for us to begin building a detailed picture of medicinal practices in the past, and what this can teach us about our ancestors’ knowledge of the plant world. Until then, let’s put the kettle on and enjoy a nice and soothing cuppa of chamomile tea…
*Neandertal or Neanderthal? For an interesting etymological discussion check out Dr John Hawks’ blog post on the matter. I’m sticking with Neanderthal. I guess that makes me… uncool?
Hardy K, Buckley S, Collins MJ, Estalrrich A, Brothwell D, Copeland L, García-Tabernero A, García-Vargas S, de la Rasilla M, Lalueza-Fox C, Huguet R, Bastir M, Santamaría D, Madella M, Wilson J, Cortés AF, & Rosas A (2012). Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus. Die Naturwissenschaften, 99 (8), 617-26 PMID: 22806252
White, D. (1997). Dental calculus: recent insights into occurrence, formation, prevention, removal and oral health effects of supragingival and subgingival deposits European Journal of Oral Sciences, 105 (5), 508-522 DOI: 10.1111/j.1600-0722.1997.tb00238.x