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Neanderthal use of medicinal plants
Monday 20 March 2017

An article earlier this month by Science Correspondent Ian Johnston on independent.co.uk - Some Neanderthals were vegetarians who used natural forms of penicillin and aspirin as medicine - reported on research revealing that Neanderthals possessed a good knowledge of medicinal plants.

Neanderthal use of medicinal plants
A Neanderthal model on display at the Natural History Museum in London. Image: Natural History Museum.

As research continues to dispel earlier stereotypes, we now learn that Neanderthals ate a largely vegetarian diet and appear to have used natural forms of penicillin and aspirin to treat infections and pain.

This is based on dental plaque found on the fossilised teeth of Neanderthals who lived in what is now Asturias, Spain, and in Belgium up to 50,000 years ago. A team of researchers from Spain, Australia and the UK were able to extract DNA from the plaque that allowed them to tell what the individuals had eaten.

Not only a continental diet; the 'Panel of Hands', El Castillo Cave in northern Spain showing red disks and hand stencils made by blowing or spitting paint onto the wall. A date from a calcium carbonate layer covering one of the red disks has revealed that the painting is more than 41,000 years old, making it the oldest known definitively-dated cave art in Europe. The image of the bison was painted by other Prehistoric people long after the hand images had been created. Image: Pedro Saura.

 
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Dental analysis of the remains found in Belgium revealed DNA from woolly rhinoceroses and wild sheep, along with a few mushrooms. But the teeth of the Spanish group revealed they had eaten wild mushrooms, pine nuts and moss, with no evidence of meat.

The research has been published in a paper in the journal Nature:

'Neanderthal behaviour, diet, and disease inferred from ancient DNA in dental calculus'
Laura S. Weyrich et al
Nature 2017 doi:10.1038/nature21674

The results were surprising; a varied diet including a wide range of plants, some of which may well have been cooked before being eaten. Moreover, the dental evidence points towards self-medication. The researchers discovered that the plaque preserved in one case contained sequences of the pathogen Enterocytozoon bieneusi, which causes gastrointestinal problems. Additionally, a hole in the jaw suggested that there would have been a dental abscess; intense pain.

The plaque contained traces of the penicillium fungus, the natural antibiotic from which the drug penicillin is derived, and also poplar. That tree's bark, roots and leaves all contain salicylic acid, which is used in aspirin and other painkillers.

The research suggests that Neanderthals possessed a good knowledge of medicinal plants and their various anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, for the purpose of self-medicating. Research at El Sidrón cave in Piloña, northern Spain, has revealed that Neanderthals were taking camomile and yarrow to help their digestion.

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ROCK ART NETWORK
Rock Art Network Bradshaw Foundation Getty Conservation Institute
PALEOANTHROPOLOGY
Skull found in Greece
by Bradshaw Foundation
Thursday 11 July 2019
Ice Age wolf found
by Bradshaw Foundation
Wednesday 12 June 2019
DNA reveals ancient migrations
by Bradshaw Foundation
Thursday 06 June 2019
Archaeological evidence from hearths
by Bradshaw Foundation
Monday 20 May 2019
Studio Libeskind in Kenya
by Bradshaw Foundation
Wednesday 15 May 2019
Oldest footprint in the Americas
by Bradshaw Foundation
Monday 29 April 2019
DNA reveals origin of Stonehenge builders
by Bradshaw Foundation
Tuesday 16 April 2019
New research on Homo floresiensis
by Bradshaw Foundation
Thursday 14 March 2019
Desert West Indigenous Cosmology
by Bradshaw Foundation
Monday 21 January 2019
Route of first humans into Australia
by Bradshaw Foundation
Monday 05 November 2018
New morphometric analysis of Neanderthal
by Bradshaw Foundation
Wednesday 31 October 2018
Discovery of North America's oldest weapons
by Bradshaw Foundation
Friday 26 October 2018
Dexterous Neanderthals
by Bradshaw Foundation
Tuesday 23 October 2018
Denisova DNA proof of parenting
by Bradshaw Foundation
Thursday 23 August 2018
New series about the Neanderthals
by Bradshaw Foundation
Monday 14 May 2018
DNA reveals early Briton
by Bradshaw Foundation
Thursday 08 February 2018
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