Neanderthals Used Plants for Medicine

An international team of scientists including Professor Les Copeland from the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Agriculture and Environment has found Neanderthals cooked plants for food and used plants for medicine.

Neanderthal jaw remains found in El Sidron Cave

The research published in the prestigious journal Naturwissenschaften, The Science of Nature, provides the first molecular evidence from Neanderthal remains for inhalation of wood-fire smoke and oil shale and ingestion of a range of cooked plant foods. The paper also includes the first evidence for the use of medicinal plants by a Neanderthal individual.

Neanderthals are hominids in the same genus as modern humans – homo – who became extinct between 30,000 and 24,000 years ago. Using remains from five Neanderthals from the El Sidron site in northern Spain, the team analysed material trapped in dental calculus, finding evidence for both food plants and medicinal plants on the Neanderthal teeth.

“We also found evidence for plant compounds such as azulenes and coumarins which may have come from plants such as yarrow and chamomile. These bitter plants have little nutritional value and aren’t very tasty, but can be used for medication, so it looks like Neanderthals were using plants in a more sophisticated fashion than we’d given them credit for,” Professor 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 unusual for self-medication to occur in higher primates, it’s reasonable that these close relative of modern humans could have used plants medicinally.”

For more information visit The University of Sydney

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