Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Doctors, chefs or hominin animals? Non-edible plants and Neanderthals

  • Karen Hardy (a1), Stephen Buckley (a2) and Michael Huffman (a3)

In 2013, Hardy et al. offered a broad behavioural context for the hypothesis that the ingestion of non-nutritional plants (yarrow and camomile) by Neanderthals was for the purpose of self-medication. Chemical traces of these plants had been detected in samples of dental calculus from Neanderthals at the site of El Sidrón, Spain, along with traces of bitumen and wood smoke, as well as starch granules that showed evidence of roasting (Hardy et al. 2012). Subsequently, the presence of traces of resin and a piece of non-edible conifer wood were also identified from these samples (Radini et al. 2016). Although not rejecting our interpretation for the presence of these two non-edible plants as evidence of medicinal plant use, two recent articles offer alternative scenarios for why and how those plants may have reached the mouth and, eventually, the dental calculus of the individual concerned. Buck and Stringer (2014) suggest that the plants were not deliberately ingested, and that the traces of yarrow and camomile were in fact embedded in the chyme, or stomach contents, of herbivore prey. Krief et al. (2015) propose two hypotheses: first, they suggest that the plants could have been used to flavour meat; second, while not ruling out the possibility that they could be medicinal, they argue on a technical point that the plants were not self-administered but were provided by a caregiver. Here, we examine these suggestions and consider their probability and feasibility as alternatives to our original proposal of self-medication.

Hide All
H. Bocherons 2009. Neanderthal dietary habits: review of the isotopic evidence, in J.-J. Hublin & M.P. Richards (ed.) The evolution of hominin diets: integrating approaches to the study of Palaeolithic subsistence: 241–50. Dordrecht: Springer.

L.T. Buck & C.B. Stringer . 2014. Having the stomach for it: a contribution to Neanderthal diets. Quaternary Science Reviews 96: 161–67.

F.J. Clemente , A. Cardona , C.E. Inchley , B.M. Peter , L. Jacobs , L. Pagani , T.J. Lawson , T. Antão & T. Kivisild . 2014. A selective sweep on a deleterious mutation in CPT1A in Arctic populations. American Journal of Human Genetics 95: 584–89.

C. Ginane , C.L. Manuelian & B. Dumont . 2015. Sheep herbivory within grassland patches: the potential cost of food item discrimination. Basic and Applied Ecology 16: 347–53.

K. Hardy , S. Buckley , M.J. Collins , A. Estalrrich , D. Brothwell , L. Copeland , A. García-Tabernero , S. García-Vargas , M. de la Rasilla , C. Lalueza-Fox , R. Huguet , M. Bastir , D. Santamaría , M. Madella , A. Fernández Cortés & A. Rosas . 2012. Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus. Naturwissenschaften 99: 617–26.

K. Hardy , S. Buckley & M.A. Huffman . 2013. Neanderthal self-medication in context. Antiquity 87: 873–78.

K. Hardy , J. Brand Miller , K.J. Brown , M.G. Thomas & L. Copeland . 2015a. The importance of dietary carbohydrate in human evolution. The Quarterly Review of Biology 90: 251–68.

K. Hardy , A. Radini , S. Buckley , R. Sarig , L. Copeland , A. Gopher & R. Barkai . 2015b. Dental calculus reveals potential respiratory irritants and ingestion of essential plant-based nutrients at Lower Palaeolithic Qesem Cave, Israel. Quaternary International 398: 129–35.

A.G. Henry , A.S. Brooks & D.R. Piperno . 2014. Plant foods and the dietary ecology of Neanderthals and early modern humans. Journal of Human Evolution 69: 4454.

S. Krief , C.M. Hladik & C. Haxaire . 2005. Ethnomedicinal and bioactive properties of plants ingested by wild chimpanzees in Uganda. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 101: 115.

C. Lalueza-Fox , E. Gigli , M. de la Rasilla , J. Fortea & A. Rosas . 2009. Bitter taste perception in Neanderthals through the analysis of the TAS2R38 gene. Biology Letters 5: 809–11.

A.J.J. MacIntosh & M.A. Huffman .2010. Towards understanding the role of diet in host-parasite interactions in the case of Japanese macaques, in F. Nakagawa , M. Nakamichi & H. Sugiura (ed.) The Japanese macaques: 323–44. Tokyo: Springer.

W.C. McGrew 2010. In search of the last common ancestor: new findings on wild chimpanzees. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 365: 3267–76.

M. Nieminen & U. Heiskari . 1989. Diets of freely grazing and captive reindeer during summer and winter. Rangifer 9: 1734.

M.S. Singer & J.O. Stireman III . 2003. Does anti-parasitoid defence explain host-plant selection by a polyphagous caterpillar? OIKOS 100: 554–62.

J. Speth 2010. The paleoanthropology and archaeology of big-game hunting: protein, fat or politics? New York: Springer.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 0003-598X
  • EISSN: 1745-1744
  • URL: /core/journals/antiquity
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 15
Total number of PDF views: 116 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 632 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 15th September 2016 - 18th October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.