60-Second Science

Neandertals May Have Self-Medicated

Fifty-thousand-year-old dental plaque reveals that Neandertals may have used certain plants for their medicinal qualities. Christopher Intagliata reports

You might picture Neandertals as cavemen gnawing on bones around a campfire. Which wouldn't be inaccurate. But Neandertals may have also dined on roasted vegetables and known a bit about medicinal plants, too. So says a study in the journal Naturwissenschaften (The Science of Nature). [Karen Hardy et al., "Neandertal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus" (link forthcoming)]

Researchers analyzed hardened dental plaque from five Neandertals found in El Sidrón cave, in northern Spain. Yes, 50,000-year-old dental plaque. And they found a lot lurking between the teeth. Like evidence of nuts, grasses and green veggies, chemical traces of wood smoke, and tiny, intact starch granules, proof Neandertals ate their carbs.

And in one individual, they detected compounds found in the medicinal herbs chamomile and yarrow. The herbs have no nutritional value, and since Neanderthals did have the gene to detect the herbs' bitter taste, the researchers speculate that the cave dwellers were munching on them not as food—but to self-medicate. Not too far-fetched, they say, because primates like chimps also use medicinal plants.

Luckily for the scientists doing this detective work, Neandertals may have known a thing or two about medicine, but they didn't get regular check-ups at the dentist.

—Christopher Intagliata

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

Rights & Permissions
Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Give a Gift &
Get a Gift - Free!

Give a 1 year subscription
as low as $14.99

Subscribe Now! >


Email this Article