Friday, July 20, 2012

Paleolithic plaque

A cave called El Sidrón (3rd image), discovered in northern Spain in 1994, continues to yield rich evidence of occupation by Neanderthals 47,300-50,600 years ago (1st image, video about the reconstruction here). It was reported by National Geographic that at least 13 individuals had been butchered for their brains and marrow at the site. Their remains (2nd image) fell 60' into a sediment-filled hollow before they could be scavenged by animals, and there they mineralized. The teeth of 5 of these cave-dwellers (4 adults and a child) have just revealed that Neanderthals - long thought to be predominantly meat-eaters - ate a variety of cooked plant foods and were aware of their nutritional and medicinal qualities. The dental calculus (calcified dental plaque) has been analyzed on a molecular level by an international team of researchers led by the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and the University of York. They combined thermal desorption and pyrolysis gas-chromatography-mass spectrometry with morphological analysis of plant microfossils to identify starches and carbohydrates. Chemical markers of exposure to wood smoke indicate that some of the foods were cooked, and the fact that others are bitter and of little nutritional value shows that they were eaten  for reasons other than taste. Karen Hardy is lead author of the study just published in Naturwissenschaften and sums up, "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." That diet included the following:
  • nuts
  • grasses
  • green vegetables
  • yarrow
  • camomile
Antonio Rosas of Madrid's Museum of Natural History 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."
Previous posts about human teeth:

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