Fossil teeth of Neanderthals from El Sidrón Cave. Credit: CSIC Comunicación
Reading Neanderthals probably already knew the principle of medicinal herbs: They seem to have consumed certain plants for medical reasons, concludes an international team of researchers from the analysis results of plant remains in the calculus of fossil teeth. The research also confirms earlier results, according to which herbal food, which was also partly prepared by cooking, was of great importance in the diet of primitive man. Until today it is unclear, why the Neanderthals had to give way to the modern humans more and more 30.000 years ago and eventually become extinct. Some scientists suggested that an almost carnal diet was the fate of the early man. The Neanderthals would therefore have been very dependent on hunting luck, while modern man was able to absorb more energy through additional vegetarian food and cooking techniques. However, earlier studies of fossil teeth of Neanderthals had already challenged this thesis. Now, the current studies again prove the importance of vegetarian food and even contribute another piece of the puzzle: Presumably hunger was not the motive for the use of certain plants, but their medical effect.

Bitter substances indicate medicinal herbs

The researchers around Karen Hardy from the Universitat Autònoma in Barcelona had studied fossil teeth of five Neanderthals, who once lived at the present site El Sidrón in northern Spain. Even then, tartar formed on teeth, which is caused by deposits of minerals in plaque. Numerous nutrient components have survived the millennia, as the analyzes of the scientists showed. They disclosed starch granules from a wide range of vegetable diets, some of which show signs of cooking heat. In addition, the researchers also found traces of special bitter substances that are typical of plants such as chamomile or yarrow.

According to the researchers, these plants are not suitable as food because they are low in energy and taste very bitter. Accordingly, there is only one plausible explanation for the consumption: The primitive man suffered the bitter taste, because they wanted to use the effect of these herbs. A conclusive behavior, because to this day, chamomile and yarrow are considered medicinal herbs that have disinfecting or anti-inflammatory effects. "Our results on the varied consumption of herbal products suggest that Neanderthals had a complex knowledge of the uses of vegetation around them? this applies to their nutritional value as well as apparently for the purpose of self-medication? summarizes Karen Hardy. display

Karen Hardy (Universitat Autònoma in Barcelona) Natural Sciences, doi: 10.1007 / s00114-012-0942-0 © wissenschaft.de? Martin Vieweg

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