Sydney: Neanderthals were more sophisticated than they have been credited with. This has been corroborated by the first ever evidence that suggests they cooked plants for food and used them as medicines.
The research provides the first molecular evidence from Neanderthal remains for inhalation of wood-fire smoke and oil shale, and ingestion of a range of cooked plant foods. It also includes the first evidence for the use of medicinal plants by Neanderthals.
Neanderthals are hominids in the same genus as modern humans - Homo - who became extinct between 30,000 and 24,000 years ago, the journal Naturwissenschaften - The Science of Nature reports.
Using remains of five Neanderthal men from the El Sidron site in northern Spain, researchers led by Les Copeland, professor at the University of Sydney's Faculty of Agriculture and Environment, analysed material trapped in dental calculus (form of hardened dental plaque).
The team found evidence of both food plants and medicinal plants on their teeth.
"Our results are really surprising, as Neanderthals had been thought to be predominantly meat-eaters. Just over the past several years there has been evidence of more plants in Neanderthal diets," Copeland said.
"It now looks like they had broader diets than we'd thought and our results show they even appear to be using plants for medicinal purposes," Copeland added, according to a Sydney statement.
The team, including researchers from Spain, the UK and Australia, found starch granules and carbohydrate markers in the samples, which indicate that these Neanderthals ate starchy foods like tubers, roots, nuts, cereals and grasses, Copeland said.
"What's really astounding is we also found evidence for plant compounds such azulenes and coumarins which may have come from plants such as yarrow and chamomile. These bitter plants have little nutritional value and aren't very tasty, but can be used for medication."
"It looks like Neanderthals were using plants in a more sophisticated fashion than we'd given them credit for," Copeland said.
First Published: Friday, July 20, 2012, 16:20