I think that we humans pride ourselves on being one of the most successful species on the Earth. Which is why it is often surprising to hear when other animals are able to do that which we think separates us from the rest. Chimpanzees, our closest living relative, have been shown to use tools and be able to use sign language – qualities indicating higher intelligence. However, one recent piece of information comes from a species long gone – the Neanderthals. Given the evidence that we carry a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA in our genome, I wonder if it is any surprise to learn that Neanderthals too may have discovered the benefits of herbal remedies. That is, Homo neanderthalensis may have used medicine too!
In a study published one month ago (18 July 2012), a team of researchers led by Karen Hardy found traces of vegetables and medicinal plants in tartar samples of five individual Neanderthal skeletal remains from Asturias, Spain. The researchers used mass spectrometry techniques to discover molecular evidence of inhalation of wood-fire smoke and evidence of eating cooked plant foods and starch granules. In addition to this, they found pigments and bitter-tasting plants of little nutritional value (yarrow and chamomile). The significance of this finding was that the researchers knew that the Neanderthals would find the plants bitter (with the identified TAS2R38 bitter taste perception gene, from a previous study by the same team) and so, the Neanderthals quite possibly could have eaten these plants for other purposes such as self-medication. Yarrow works as an antiseptic and can be used to treat colds, while chamomile can be used to aid digestion and for stress.
Although, perhaps you might think that these findings were only co-incidental and that the researchers over-interpreted their findings. But the long-held public belief that Neanderthals were – hmm… how to put this nicely – not as smart as Homo sapiens, seems to be misguided. For those of you unaware, Neanderthals in fact had the same or larger cranial capacities (a measure of brain size) relative to modern humans, in addition to their larger and stronger build. They mostly covered Europe and Central-Western Asia, and only became extinct around 30,000 – 24,000 years ago. Several theories dictate why they became extinct, including interbreeding (with Homo sapiens), the Campanian ignimbrite volcanic super-eruption, climate change, or just plain old competition with humans!
Anyway, aside from the evidence of plants being used for medicinal purposes, it is also interesting to note that this fossilised teeth evidence also showed the presence of another thing – lots of bacteria and plaque! So… although it seems that “medicine” was not unique to Homo sapiens (in fact, there is evidence that many other animals use plants for self-medication, known as “Zoopharmacognosy”), as far as I’m aware, we’ve certainly surpassed the Neanderthals on dental care!
Hardy, K. et al. (2012) Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus. Naturwissenschaften, 99 (8), p.617-626.
Self-medication in non-humans: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoopharmacognosy