New Scientist takes a shine to the science of archaeo-dentistry… OK, I made that name up. But there really are experts out there who can tell you how Neanderthals lived – and how they cured their illnesses – by studying the prehistoric plaque stuck to their teeth:
Karen Hardy at ICREA, the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona, working with Stephen Buckley at the University of York, UK, and colleagues, used a scalpel to scrape tartar off the teeth of five Neanderthals. They chemically analysed some of the tartar samples, and examined others using an electron microscope.
The microscope revealed cracked starch granules, which suggests the Neanderthals roasted plants before eating them. More evidence for the importance of fire was found in the chemicals within the tartar: there were aromatic hydrocarbons and phenols, which are associated with wood smoke.
Unexpectedly, there were few lipids or proteins in the tartar, suggesting the Neanderthals of El Sidrón ate little meat. However, one Neanderthal consumed yarrow, a natural astringent, and camomile, an anti-inflammatory.
“It’s very surprising that the plants we were able to securely identify were those with a bitter taste and no nutritional qualities – but known medicinal properties,” says Hardy. Neanderthals were apparently able to select plants for medical use, she says.