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29 July 2012
Spanish Neanderthal cave cuisine

Remains of Neanderthals found in the El Sidron cave in the Asturias region of Northern Spain provide the first molecular evidence that Neanderthals ate a range of cooked plant foods, and understood their nutritional and medicinal qualities. Until recently Neanderthals were thought to be predominantly meat-eaters, though evidence of dietary breadth is growing as more sophisticated tests are undertaken.
     Researchers analysed samples of dental calculus from the 50,000-year-old teeth of five Neanderthals from the site. Using plaque to work out the diets of ancient animals is not entirely new, but lead author Karen Hardy, research professor in Barcelona, has gone further by looking for organic compounds, identifying starch granules and carbohydrate markers, plus evidence for plant compounds such as azulenes and coumarins, as well as possible evidence for nuts, grasses and even green vegetables - yet surprisingly few traces of meat-associated proteins or lipids.
     Hardy says: "The varied use of plants we identified suggests that the Neanderthal occupants of El Sidron 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."
     Members of this same team had earlier shown that the Neanderthals in El Sidron had the bitter taste-perception gene, and since found molecular evidence that one individual had eaten bitter-tasting plants such as yarrow and camomile, with little nutritional value. Dr Stephen Buckley, University of York, said: "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 higher primates, and indeed many other animals."
     Hardy adds that, "Chamomile 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. "All modern higher primates make use of medicinal plants, so perhaps Neanderthals did too."
     The team also found chemical evidence in the dental calculus consistent with wood-fire smoke, a range of cooked starchy foods, and bitumen.
     Antonio Rosas, of the Museum of Natural History in Madrid, said: "We know that they looked after the sick, buried their dead and decorated their bodies. Now another dimension has been added relating to their diet and self-medication."

Edited from Popular Archaeology, Nature (18 July 2012), National Geographic (20 July 2012)

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