The tartar on Neanderthal teeth has a tale to tell. The chemicals and food fragments it contains reveal that our close relations huddled around fires to cook and consume plants – including some with medicinal properties. The find is the earliest direct evidence of self-medication in prehistory.
Despite their reputed taste for flesh, we now know that at least some Neanderthals enjoyed a more varied diet. The latest evidence comes from an analysis of 50,000-year-old Neanderthal teeth from the El Sidrón site in northern Spain.
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.
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