Dr. Karen Hardy, Autonomous University of Barcelona – Neanderthals and Medicinal Plants

Oct 2, 2012

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Karen Hardy of the Autonomous University of Barcelona explains how new information about the behavior of Neanderthals is providing a new picture of their mental abilities.

Karen Hardy is a Research Professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and an Honorary Research Associate at the University of York. Her research seeks to understand human adaptations, diet, and climate in the late glacial and early post glacial period on Europe’s north-west coast.  Her current lab-based project is focused on exploring ways to use starch granules to reconstruct the starchy food component of the pre-agricultural diet.

About Dr. Hardy

Dr. Karen Hardy – Neanderthals and Medicinal Plants

Neanderthals were a species of hominid that lived in Europe and western Asia to around 30,000 years ago.Until recently, they were understood to have been predominantly meat-eaters. El Sidrón is a well-known Neanderthal site in Northern Spain and contains the remains of at least 13 individuals, dating to around 50,000 years ago.  In ancient populations where oral hygiene did not exist, most people had dental calculus. When plaque is not cleaned off teeth regularly it calcifies and can remain for life.  Recently it has become clear that dental calculus is a store for biographical detail. 

We took samples of calculus from 5 individuals and conducted a suite of analyses on them. With Stephen Buckley a collaborator on this project, we found tiny pieces of plant including starch granules and a range of other biographical information, trapped in the calculus. We found that this population of Neanderthals ate a range of starchy plants and probably also green vegetables and that some of these foods had been roasted. We also found evidence that they had been near a wood-smoke fire, had come into contact with bitumen which was used by Neanderthals to bind some of their tools, and we found specific evidence for the plants yarrow and camomile. 

Both these plants are bitter tasting and are used today for medicinal purposes and neither has any nutritional value, so they were unlikely to have been part of the diet.  We know from earlier work that these Neanderthals had the ability to identify bitter taste. Bitter taste often signals poison, so these Neanderthals clearly understood the properties of these plants. Self-medication fits into a wider pattern of behaviour as all the higher primates today, including chimpanzees and gorillas, know and use many plants for medicinal purposes. Our new information shows Neanderthals to have had a more complex suite of knowledge and behaviour than has hitherto been attributed to them.