In 2013, Hardy et al. offered a broad behavioural context
for the hypothesis that the ingestion of non-nutritional plants (yarrow and
camomile) by Neanderthals was for the purpose of self-medication. Chemical
traces of these plants had been detected in samples of dental calculus from
Neanderthals at the site of El Sidrón, Spain, along with traces of bitumen
and wood smoke, as well as starch granules that showed evidence of roasting
(Hardy et al.
2012). Subsequently, the presence
of traces of resin and a piece of non-edible conifer wood were also
identified from these samples (Radini et al.
2016). Although not rejecting our
interpretation for the presence of these two non-edible plants as evidence
of medicinal plant use, two recent articles offer alternative scenarios for
why and how those plants may have reached the mouth and, eventually, the
dental calculus of the individual concerned. Buck and Stringer (2014) suggest that the plants were
not deliberately ingested, and that the traces of yarrow and camomile were
in fact embedded in the chyme, or stomach contents, of herbivore prey. Krief
et al. (2015)
propose two hypotheses: first, they suggest that the plants could have been
used to flavour meat; second, while not ruling out the possibility that they
could be medicinal, they argue on a technical point that the plants were not
self-administered but were provided by a caregiver. Here, we examine these
suggestions and consider their probability and feasibility as alternatives
to our original proposal of self-medication.