It was the tell-tale tartar on the teeth that told the truth. Or at least, that is what it appeared to do. After studying calcified plaque on Neanderthal fossil teeth found in Spain’s El Sidron cave, researchers last year concluded that members of this extinct human species cooked vegetables, and consumed bitter-tasting medicinal plants such as chamomile and yarrow.
Neanderthals were not brainless carnivores, they were smart, sensitive people capable of providing themselves with balanced diets and of treating themselves with health-restoring herbs, concluded researchers led by Karen Hardy at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona. The view of these long-extinct people needs adjusting, they said.
This tale of ancient tartar took a new twist after two researchers at London’s Natural History Museum challenged the Barcelona group’s conclusions. Dental research does not prove that Neanderthals were self-medicating, vegetable-eating sophisticates, one of the museum researchers told the Observer. There are other equally valid explanations to account for the herbs and plants found in Neanderthal teeth.
In a paper by Laura Buck and Chris Stringer published in the latest edition of Quaternary Science Reviews, Stringer argues that the tiny pieces of plant found in Neanderthal teeth could have come from a very different source. They may well have become embedded in the stomach contents of deer, bison and other herbivores that had then been hunted and eaten by Neanderthals.
“Many hunter-gatherers, including the Inuit, Cree and Blackfeet, eat the stomach contents of animals such as deer because they are good source of vitamin C and trace elements,” Stringer said. “For example, among the Inuit, the stomach contents of an animal are considered a special delicacy with a consistency and a flavor that is not unlike cream cheese. At least that is what I am told.”
The crucial point about the stomach contents of grazing animals is that they are filled with fragments of the plants that those herbivores had consumed shortly before they were stalked and killed. When those contents are then chewed and eaten, the tiny pieces of grass and herbs are transferred to their hunter’s teeth and get embedded there.
“The mistake is to think that because you find plant fragments in teeth that they must have got there because these carnivores — in this case Neanderthals — had consumed them as part of a carefully constructed diet or were taken because it was realized that certain herbs and grasses had health-promoting properties,” Buck added.
“Neanderthals lived in Europe during many cold periods and it is interesting to note that many modern human hunter-gatherers who eat stomach contents today, such as the Inuit, also live in northerly regions. It is a behaviour often displayed by a cold-adapted species, in other words, and if you have gone to the time and trouble of hunting a large herbivore, you would not miss out on a nutritious part such as the stomach,” Stringer said
However, Stringer and Buck stress they are not arguing that Neanderthal definitely did not eat vegetables or used medicinal herbs.
“What we are saying is that the evidence of plant fragments in Neanderthal teeth is simply not strong enough to prove that they did so,” they said.