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Neanderthal Medicine

Researchers have provided the first molecular evidence that Neanderthals not only ate a range of cooked plant foods, but also understood its nutritional and medicinal qualities. Oetzi, he prehistoric "iceman" (who was not a Neanderthal), carried mushrooms with him, which were clearly meant to be used for medicinal purposes.

Until recently Neanderthals, who disappeared between 30,000 and 24,000 years ago, were thought to be predominantly meat-eaters. However, evidence of dietary breadth is growing as more sophisticated analyses are undertaken.

Researchers were able to analyze plant microfossils from that time to identify plant material trapped in the teeth five Neanderthals from the north Spanish site of El Sidrón, providing the first evidence for medicinal plants being used by a Neanderthal individual. They found evidence for plant compounds, as well as possible evidence for nuts, grasses and even green vegetables.

The archaeological cave site of El Sidrón, located in northern Spain, contains the best collection of Neanderthal remains in Europe and one of the most important active sites in the world. Discovered in 1994, it contains around 2,000 skeletal remains of at least 13 individuals dating back around 47,300 to 50,600 years.

Researcher Karen Hardy says, "The varied use of plants we identified suggests that the Neanderthal occupants of El Sidrón had a sophisticated knowledge of their natural surroundings which included the ability to select and use certain plants for their nutritional value and for self-medication. While meat was clearly important, our research points to an even more complex diet than has previously been supposed."

Researcher Stephen Buckley says, "The evidence indicating this individual was eating bitter-tasting plants such as yarrow and camomile with little nutritional value is surprising. We know that Neanderthals would find these plants bitter, so it is likely these plants must have been selected for reasons other than taste."

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