New research into the diet of Neanderthals is changing the long-held conception that the European hominins were strictly meat-eaters.
A study published in scientific journal Naturwissenschaften suggests that roasted plants may have played a larger role in Neanderthal diets than previously thought and may have been used medicinally.
The assertion is drawn from 50,000-year-old skeletal remains found in El Sidrón Cave in northern Spain. The teeth of 13 individuals showed layers of calcified plaque, which contained a range of carbohydrates and starch granules. Some revealed alkyl phenols, aromatic hydrocarbons and roasted starch granules, which suggests the beings spent time in smoky areas and ate cooked vegetables. Few lipids or proteins from meat were found.
Nature magazine provides more insight from prominent members of the anthropology field:
“The idea that Neanderthals were largely meat-eaters has been hard for me to accept given their membership in a mainly vegetarian clade. It is exciting to see this new set of techniques applied to understanding their palaeo-diet,” says Richard Wrangham, an anthropologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Karen Hardy, the study's lead author and an anthropologist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain, adds:
“The idea of Neanderthals sitting down for a bowl of salad stretches my imagination and there is no evidence of them having cooking pots, so soups seem unlikely,” she says. Hardy theorizes that the Neanderthals may have used the bitter plants as medicines ― modern herbalists use them as anti-inflamatories and antiseptics. “All modern higher primates make use of medicinal plants, so perhaps Neanderthals did too,” she says.
Hardy also told Science Daily that on another level, the findings suggest that these individuals "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."
This isn't the first time research has suggested vegetables played a larger role in Neanderthal diets than previously thought. In 2010, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study related to fossilized grains of vegetable material found in Neanderthal teeth. Some of it was cooked.