|Researchers work inside Spain's El Sidron cave, where plaque scraped from the teeth of Neanderthals suggests that at least one of them was chewing medicinal plants.|
Tooth scrapings from tens of thousands of years ago suggest that Neanderthals chewed on medicinal plants to soothe their upsets.
That's the conclusion drawn by an international team of researchers who conducted a chemical analysis on dental calculus from five sets of Neanderthal remains that were excavated inside El Sidron Cave in northern Spain. The calcified crud contained microscopic bits of plant material as well as chemicals associated with wood smoke.
The analysis indicated that the Neanderthals ate cooked plant food that was high in starch, and perhaps also nuts, grasses and green vegetables. One case was particularly intriguing: The scrapings from an individual known as Adult 4 contained chemicals known as azulenes and coumarins. Those are the sorts of chemicals that are found in yarrow and chamomile, two types of herbal remedies.
Yarrow is an astringent that's long been used to cleanse wounds when used externally, or counter internal bleeding when ingested. Chamomile may be best-known today as a soothing tea, but that's because it has a settling effect on colds, headaches, intestinal distress and menstrual cramping. Both plants have anti-inflammatory properties.
The researchers say this is the first molecular-scale evidence supporting the idea that Neanderthals ingested medicinal plants. Their findings — which are based on a high-tech method of analysis known as pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, plus the study of plant microfossils — were published online today in the journal Naturwissenschaften.
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