Move over Gordon Ramsay! Tooth analysis reveals Neanderthals created gourmet meals by flavouring their food with herbs

  • Scientists suggest that prehistoric human cousins used herbs like yarrow and camomile to improve the taste of their food around 50,000 years ago 
  • Chimps in Uganda also eat plants with their meat in a way that is thought to flavour their food so researchers believe Neanderthals also did the same
  • It build recent discoveries that suggest they also ate barley, olives and nuts
  • The findings transform the view of Neanderthals as unsophisticated brutes 

They have a reputation as rather brutish creatures who chomped their way through huge hunks of meat, but it seems Neanderthals may actually have been the first masterchefs.

New research is suggesting that these extinct early humans may have used wild herbs to flavour their food.

Scientists have found traces of compounds found in camomile and yarrow in the hardened plaque of 50,000 year old Neanderthal teeth found in El Sidron, Spain.

Neanderthals (represented in the drawing above) may have been the world's first gourmets - using herbs like yarrow and camomile to flavour the meat that dominated their diet, according to a new scientific paper

Neanderthals (represented in the drawing above) may have been the world's first gourmets - using herbs like yarrow and camomile to flavour the meat that dominated their diet, according to a new scientific paper

At first researchers thought they might have been using these plants as a form of self-medication, but now new findings have presented a different theory.

Dr Sabrina Krief, a lecturer at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, and her colleagues suggests they may have used them to make food more palatable.

NEANDERTHAL BOIL IN THE BAG 

Neanderthals may have cooked stews in the skins of animals, according to some anthropologists.

Animal bones found at sites known to have been inhabited by Neanderthals are 90 per cent free of gnaw marks.

This suggests that fat and meat had instead been cooked off the bones.

A study of tooth plaque from the teeth of fossilised Neanderthal remains also suggest that they may have heated grains of barley.

However, there is no evidence that Neanderthals had any pots or pans to cook with.

Instead Professor John Speth, an archaeologist at the University of Michigan, believes that they used animal paunches and folded bark to make bags that they could boil their good in. 

A study of plaque found on Neanderthal teeth like the one above suggests they ate grains like barley

A study of plaque found on Neanderthal teeth like the one above suggests they ate grains like barley

They have found that wild chimpanzees in Uganda eat three different types of leaf while consuming meat they had caught.

They say Neanderthals could also used herbs to improve their culinary creations in the same way.

There is already evidence that they cooked their food and may even have created stews in the skins of animals.

Writing in the journal Antiquity, Dr Krief and her colleagues said: 'Data on Neanderthal behaviour suggest that their subsistence and technological strategies were complex.'

Neanderthals have long been portrayed as a rather primitive form of human that died out as they were unable to compete with the more sophisticated modern humans that arrived in Europe and Asia from Africa.

However, recent discoveries have shown that they may actually have had a complex culture - capable of making stone tools and even jewellery.

Three years ago researchers at the University of Barcelona examined ten teeth from the remains of five Neanderthals found in El Sidron, northern Spain.

In the dental plaque of one young adult they discovered three compounds that occur naturally in yarrow and camomile.

Dr Karen Hardy and her team, who conducted that work, suggested that these plants had been used to help ward off illness or treat a diease.

Yarrow for example has been used in the past to treat fever and to stem bleeding.

However it was also a popular vegetable in the 17th century, while the leaves can also be dried and used as a herb.

It is said to produce a pungent odour while having a slightly sweet and peppery taste that has been described as similar to spinach.

Camomile was also a popular treatment for inflammation, hayfever and stomach problems, but is still used to today to flavour foods in top restaurants.

Neither of the plants have much nutritional value but both convey strong flavours.

Dr Krief and her team found that separate groups of chimpanzees at Budongo Forest Reserve and Kibale National Park ate plants while chewing meat.

New archaeological discoveries are expanding our knowledge of how Neanderthals lived in ways that could not have been imagined when their fossilised remains, like the skeleton above, were first found by archaeologists

New archaeological discoveries are expanding our knowledge of how Neanderthals lived in ways that could not have been imagined when their fossilised remains, like the skeleton above, were first found by archaeologists

Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay has become well known for his subtle use of flavours that contrasts with his rather brutish approach in the kitchen, but it seems he could also have learned some tips from Neanderthals

Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay has become well known for his subtle use of flavours that contrasts with his rather brutish approach in the kitchen, but it seems he could also have learned some tips from Neanderthals

Neanderthals, like the one shown above, may well have been the world's first gourmet chefs, findings suggest

Neanderthals, like the one shown above, may well have been the world's first gourmet chefs, findings suggest

They reason that if this was for medicinal purposes, different animals would eat different plants depending on their ailments.

However, the animals in each group all tended to eat the same plants with their meat, suggesting they were eating them for flavour instead.

Dr Krief said that previous work has dismissed the idea that Neanderthals were eating herbs to flavour food based on the assumption that their tastes were very basic.

However, she says that if chimpanzees use plants to flavour their food, then it is entirely possible that Neanderthals also used herbs and spices.

Writing in Antiquity, the researchers said: 'The strong, bitter taste of the leaves may modify the flavour of the viscera, muscles, organs or water. 

'In a French cookbook, a recipe proposes cooking a blanquette of veal with camomile.

'The bitter taste of the cooked plant does not necessarily disappear completely; camomile, for example, remains bitter when infused.

'The presence of cooked carbohydrates, esters, phenols, pyrene and florathene in calculus samples from El Sidron supports the hypothesis that Neanderthals were cooking plant food and perhaps smoking food, confirming that they were able to practice different food-processing techniques.

'It is suggested that, among other cooking methods, roasting, heating or even potentially boiling to make soup, stew or stock might have been used by Neanderthals.

'Such a variety of practices, combined with the fact that the samples from El Sidr´on reveal the presence of smoke-related compounds, show that Neanderthals were using food processing at least as complex as flavouring food with plant material.' 

Other recent discoveries are starting to reveal what culinary creatures the Neanderthals were.

Camomile is well known as a herb that can produce some interesting flavours for dishes and was eaten by Neanderthals according to recent research on dental plaque that had hardened onto fossiled teeth

Camomile is well known as a herb that can produce some interesting flavours for dishes and was eaten by Neanderthals according to recent research on dental plaque that had hardened onto fossiled teeth

Yarrow is a hardy plant but its leaves can be used as a herb known for its sweet flavour and bitter aftertaste

Yarrow is a hardy plant but its leaves can be used as a herb known for its sweet flavour and bitter aftertaste

Research presented at the Paleoanthropology Society Annual Meeting this week suggests they tended to eat horses, deer and bovids rather than larger game like mammoths.

According to New Scientist, Geoff Smith, from the Monrepos Archaeological Research Centre in Germany, said they also seemed to have sucked out the fatty marrow from bones.

There is also some evidence from Neanderthal sites in Gibralter that suggests they also liked nuts and wild olives.

Analysis of fossilised Neanderthal faeces has also revealed that while they ate meat, they also had a 'significant intake of plants'.

Dr Simon Underdown, an anthropologist at Oxford Brookes University, said: 'This paper reminds us that the Neanderthals were complicated and sophisticated humans.

'While the data from dental calculus might be evidence for medicinal plants this new research highlights a number of alternative explanations; the most intriguing of which is the use of food flavourings.

'The comparison with chimps must be used carefully as they are a very different animal but the complex array of behaviours seen in world chimps gives us even more to marvel at when we think about what the Neanderthals were capable of.' 

THE NEW VIEW OF NEANDERTHALS

Neanderthals first emerged around 280,000 years ago, spreading to inhabit much of Europe and parts of Asia, but they eventually died out 40,000 years ago. 

The reason for their demise was often put down to being a more primative species of human that was unable to compete against the more sophisticated Homo sapiens.

They were depicted as thuggish cavemen that scraped an existence on the cold lands of ice age Europe. 

However, a series of discoveries are now putting Neanderthals into a new light. Stone tools discovered at sites they inhabited suggest they were skilled tool makers with adept hand eye coordination.

A 60,000-year-old multi-purpose bone tool unearthed in France also suggests Neanderthals understood how to use bones to make useful devices 

A recent discovery by researchers at the Muséum National d'Histories Naturelle in Paris suggests that Neanderthals may have built homes using the materials they found around them.

They discovered a 26 feet wide building created 44,000 years ago from mammoth bones.

Many of the bones had also been decorated carvings and ochre pigments.

Cross-hatched engravings found inside Gorham's Cave in Gibraltar are also thought to be the first known examples of Neanderthal rock art.

DNA analysis has also shown that Neanderthals carried the same genes that are thought to have enabled modern humans to speak.

Eight talons found at a 130,000 year old Neanderthal site in Krapina in Croatia are also thought to be the world's first jewellery, and may have been worn as a necklace. 

In modern hunter-gatherer societies, women may have been responsible for the preparation of furs and the elaboration of garments.Researchers state that the retouching of the edges of stone tools seems to have been a male task. Pictured is an illustration of how they used their mouths as hands

The traditional image of Neanderthals as primitive creatures like above is no longer holding up to evidence

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