A diet of pine nuts, mushrooms and moss might sound like modernist cuisine, but it turns out it was standard fare for Spanish Neanderthals.
Researchers studying the teeth of the heavy-browed hominids have discovered that while Neanderthals in Belgium were chomping on woolly rhinoceros, those further south were surviving on plants and may even have used naturally occurring painkillers to ease toothache.
The findings, the researchers say, are yet another blow to the popular misconception of Neanderthals as brutish simpletons.
“Neanderthals, not surprisingly, are doing different things, exploiting different things, in different places,” said Keith Dobney, a bioarchaeologist and co-author of the research from the University of Liverpool.
Writing in the journal Nature, Dobney and an international team of colleagues describe how they analysed ancient DNA – from microbes and food debris – preserved in the dental tartar, or calculus, of three Neanderthals dating from 42,000 to 50,000 years ago. Two of the individuals were from the El Sidrón cave in Spain while one was from the Spy Cave in Belgium.