Neanderthal diet, self-medication and biographical detail.
Neanderthals lived in Europe and SW Asia for approximately 100,000 years to around 25,000 BP, though little is known about their lives.
It has recently become clear that dental calculus is a trap for ingested material with great potential for reconstructing past biographical detail. We examined dental calculus from five individuals from the 50,000 BP Neanderthal site of El Sidrón, Asturias, using sequential thermal desorption-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (TD-GC-MS), pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (Py-GC-MS), scanning electron and optical microscopy. Until recently, most of the evidence pointed to Neanderthals being predominantly meat-eaters; we have shown that their diet was much broader than this.
Our results demonstrate inhalation of woody smoke and bitumen or oil shale, ingestion of a range of carbohydrate-rich foods, possible evidence for nuts, grasses and green vegetables and cooking. The molecular evidence for cooking and exposure to smoke in the form of methyl esters, phenols, and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons is confirmed by the cracked/roasted starch granules embedded in the calculus.
Identification of pigments and bitter-tasting appetite suppressants (dihydroazulene and chamazulene, and the coumarin, 4-methylherniarin) is intriguing. One possible reason for consumption of bitter-tasting plants with no nutritional value and these compounds is self-medication. All higher primates have a wide, applied knowledge of edible plants in their environments and there is growing evidence of animal self-medication.
We have provided the first measurable molecular evidence that dental calculus is a trap for ingested material, while the starch granules we reported represent the oldest ever to be confirmed biochemically. Fossilized bacteria were observed by SEM; sequencing of bacteria from archaeological dental calculus is currently being developed.
We have demonstrated that that the Neanderthals of El Sidrón had a sophisticated knowledge of their natural surroundings and were able to recognize the nutritional and medicinal value of certain plants.
Surprisingly, there is no clear agreement on what constitutes a healthy diet. However, the dramatic worldwide increase in obesity and diet-related diseases has focused interest on the `palaeolithic' diet. Accessing direct evidence for ingested material offers a new window into the past and potential to examine issues related to the modern diet.
This paper captured the imagination of the world press; it was reported in Nature, Scientific