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Advocates of paleo and primal diets describe their focus on animal fats and protein as a “return” to the foods the human body was designed to eat. Yet a new study published in the journal Nature suggests some Neanderthals were vegetarians.

Researchers studied the dental plaque of three Neanderthals who lived about 50,000 years ago in Europe. One was from a cave in what is now Belgium; the other two from a cave in Spain. While the Belgian Neanderthal’s plaque contained plenty of evidence of meat eating — wooly rhino, wild sheep — the plaque from the Spanish individuals contained zero evidence of animal consumption.

“We find things like pine nuts, moss, tree barks, and even mushrooms as well,” Laura Weyrich, of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA and the lead author on the study, told National Public Radio. “It is very indicative of a vegetarian diet.”

In her view, the difference in diets can be attributed to a difference in environment. The Belgian cave was located near wide grassy plains, where animals would be likely to roam. The Spanish Neanderthals, meanwhile, lived in a dense forest, where “it’s hard to imagine a big wooly rhino trying to wedge themselves between the trees,” Weyrich says.

Not only were Neanderthals able to sustain themselves eating plant foods, but they may also have used plants to treat illness. Researchers found traces of poplar bark in the plaque of a young male who appeared to have a GI bug. Poplar bark contains salicylic acid — the main ingredient in aspirin. They also found traces of penicillium, a mold that’s the basis for penicillin.

The researchers suggest that this adaptability is what allowed Neanderthals to thrive for thousands of years across Asia and Europe — not any particular diet. So perhaps the true ancestral diet is best defined by eating locally, and chewing a little tree bark once in a while.

For more perspective on the “true” human diet, see our feature “Paleo vs. Vegan.”


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