TASTE

Neanderthal Study Argues The Original Paleo Diet Included Flavorful Herbs

04/18/2015 05:11 pm ET | Updated Apr 18, 2015
ERIC CABANIS via Getty Images

As you've surely figured out by now, especially if you're Facebook friends with any Crossfit enthusiasts, the fastest-growing diet of the past few years is the Paleo diet. It restricts adherents' food intake to ingredients that were -- at least theoretically -- consumed by hominids in the Paleolithic Age, which ended sometime around 10,000 B.C.E. That means no wheat, no sugar, no alcohol and certainly no artificial additives.

Paleo is surely one of the most imaginatively daring diets ever devised. The underpinning idea is that the key to ideal health is to return, as much as possible, to the way our ancestors ate in some Edenic past before agriculture, urban life or written history, when our dietary choices were governed by inborn animalistic impulses rather than societal morays. By connecting the waning of man's health and vigor with the waxing of agriculture, Paleo's supporters tap into beliefs about human history so fundamental that they're encoded in the Book of Genesis. It may be the true source of Paleo's popularity isn't so much its demonstrated health benefits as the near-universal potency of the story of the fall.

But the more scientists learn about our distant ancestors, the less basic this pre-historic idyll seems. The latest salvo comes in the form of an article about the dietary habits of Neanderthals, published in the April issue of the journal Antiquity.

The study's authors, led by French anthropologist Sabrina Krief, draw on a 2012 study of a cache of 50,000-year-old Neanderthal remains found in a cave in northern Spain. The team behind the earlier study, which was led by Spanish archeologist Karen Hardy, found traces of chemicals embedded in the Spanish Neanderthal's teeth that derive from two herbs, chamomile and yarrow. Because chamomile and yarrow are known to have anti-microbial and anti-parasitic properties, Hardy and her co-authors concluded that Neanderthals ingested these herbs to self-medicate unspecified ailments.

Krief and her colleagues posit a different hypothesis. While admitting the possibility that the Neanderthals were using the herbs as medicine, they also suggest that they might have eaten them because they liked the taste. They base this conclusion on observations they and others have made of the dietary behavior of wild chimpanzees; apparently, chimpanzees like to chew bitter herbs and flavorful soils before and during meat-based meals, especially those in which stomach and intestine meat serves as the main course.

Noting that Hardy's team also found chemicals associated with smoked and cooked meats, they further argue that the Neanderthals cooked full dishes that were probably meat based -- including bone broth! -- using these herbs as flavoring agents. To support the idea that chamomile and yarrow, which aren't exactly staples of the herb section at Whole Foods, might have appealed to the Neanderthal palate, they note that a French cookbook from 2000 includes camomile in a recipe for blanquette de veau.

"The strong, bitter taste of the leaves may modify the flavor of viscera, muscles, organs or water," they write. "The bitter taste of the cooked plant does not necessarily disappear completely; chamomile, for example, remains bitter when infused."

The Daily Mail, in a long writeup of the study, suggests that the Neanderthals were talented enough cooks to compete with the likes of Gordon Ramsay. That seems a little rich, but this study does offer more compelling evidence that Neanderthals were, like corporations, people too. And people have always liked food that tastes good.

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