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Clues in dental calculus “banish many of the preconceptions we had of Neanderthals.”
Did Neanderthals enjoy a balanced diet with a variety of cooked veggies? Did they value medicinal herbs? New evidence from Spain suggests they did.
A little late for a trip to the dental hygienist, several Neanderthals from El Sidrón cave, located in the Asturias region of northern Spain, left clues in their calcified plaque—clues that will give their people’s reputation a facelift. Long thought stubbornly carnivorous and even cannibalistic,1 Neanderthal dietary inflexibility has been blamed for their extinction in the face of competition from more flexibly omnivorous modern humans. Results of the plaque analysis published in Naturwissenschaften have prompted anthropologist Lawrence Straus to comment, “As exceptional places like El Sidrón reveal just how wise and flexible Neanderthals were, more and more we are having to ask ourselves, why did they go extinct?”2
Researchers from Spain, the UK, and Australia, led by Karen Hardy, subjected tooth tartar from five of the thirteen individuals preserved in the cave to both microscopic and chemical analyses. The tartar contained comparatively little in the way of chemical signatures suggestive of meat but instead revealed a variety of botanical products and even bitter herbs. According to coauthor Les Copeland, the findings suggest “these Neanderthals ate starchy foods like tubers, roots, nuts, cereals and grasses.”3
“This, along with the fact that we found some of the starch granules were cracked and roasted from our microscopic observations, indicates that the Neanderthals were cooking up their plant foods.”
Furthermore, based on the cracking of the starch granules and the presence of chemicals consistent with exposure to cooking fire, the team deduced these people ate their carbs cooked. "We also found chemical evidence consistent with wood-fire smoke and bitumen or oil shale entrapped within the dental calculus,” explains Copeland. “This, along with the fact that we found some of the starch granules were cracked and roasted from our microscopic observations, indicates that the Neanderthals were cooking up their plant foods.”4
The herbs were likely yarrow and chamomile, bitter-tasting substances know to be of medicinal but not nutritional value. While some have suggested the herbs were used for seasoning, Hardy says, “The idea of Neanderthals sitting down for a bowl of salad stretches my imagination and there is no evidence of them having cooking pots, so soups seem unlikely.”5 She adds, “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.”
Antonio Rosas, whose research a few years ago suggested several of these Neanderthals had been cannibalized and skinned,6 was a coauthor of this new research. He says, “El Sidrón has allowed us to banish many of the preconceptions we had of Neanderthals. Thanks to previous studies, we know that they looked after the sick, buried their dead and decorated their bodies. Now another dimension has been added relating to their diet and self-medication.”
The Neanderthal image has improved substantially over the years. Formerly treated by many modern scientists as little better than grunting brutes, Neanderthal reputation has risen as tools, evidence of abstract thinking, and genetic evidence of interbreeding with modern humans have come to light. This new information has promoted them to “wise and flexible.”
The fact is, Neanderthals were as human as the readers of this column. (In fact, they may have even liked bitter herbs on salad!) Whatever their differences from modern humans, archaeological evidence supports the biblical understanding that Neanderthals were descended from Noah’s family. They apparently died off by the end of the Ice Age, for reasons that remain obscure, as did some other people groups. We are certainly not surprised to discover that they were even more “like us” than previously thought.
Evolutionary scientists maintain Neanderthals evolved from ape-like ancestors and finally went extinct 24,000 to 30,000 years ago. However, conclusions about transitional forms between ape-like creatures and humans and pronouncements dating fossils with vast ages are based on unverifiable interpretations of the past, not actual experimental science. (See below for more information.)
God created the first two humans about 6,000 years ago, according to His own eyewitness account. All people, including Neanderthals are descended from them. Read more about where people we call Neanderthals fit into the biblical timeline in the series from the Answers magazine spring 2012 issue.
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