A cave in northern Spain that previously yielded evidence of Neanderthals as brain-eating cannibals now suggests the prehistoric humans ate their greens and used herbal remedies.
A new study of skeletal remains from El Sidrón cave site in Asturias (map) detected chemical and food traces on the teeth of five Neanderthals. (Take a Neanderthal quiz in National Geographic magazine.)
Tartar samples from the 50,000-year-old teeth revealed microscopic plant starch granules, which had cracks indicating the plants had been roasted first. Further chemical analysis revealed compounds associated with wood smoke.
Starch and carbohydrates in the tartar show the Neanderthals ate a variety of plants, but there were surprisingly few traces of meat-associated proteins or lipids.
Not only did our extinct cousins prefer grilling vegetables to steaks, they were also dosing themselves with medicinal plants, according to a team led by Karen Hardy, an archaeologist at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona.
The cave dwellers' diet was found to include yarrow and chamomile, both bitter-tasting plants with little nutritional value. Earlier research by the same team had shown that the Neanderthals in El Sidrón had a gene for tasting bitter substances.
"We know that Neanderthals would find these plants bitter, so it is likely these plants must have been selected for reasons other than taste"—probably medication, Hardy said in a statement.
"It fits in well with the behavioral pattern of self-medication by today's higher primates, and indeed many other animals."
It's impossible to know what cures Neanderthals sought from the plants, but people use them today to treat a variety of ailments, she noted.
"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, she said.
The research adds to recent findings that question the Neanderthals' reputation as inflexible carnivores—previously cited as a reason why modern humans, able to draw on a wider variety of food sources, gained a competitive edge over their heavy-browed cousins.
"Our results do add to the growing picture of plant consumption by Neanderthals," said Hardy, who worked with archaeological chemist Stephen Buckley of the University of York.
And she sees no reason to view this Spanish population as a veggie-loving anomaly.
"I do not see why they should be unusual," Hardy said.
"It will be very interesting, though, to conduct this type of study on Neanderthal populations living in different environments."
The Neanderthal study was published July 18 in the journal Naturwissenschaften.