Those who ascribe to a meat-heavy paleo diet because they think that’s what our ancestors ate may be in for a rude awakening: it seems that our relatives from the Pleistocene Era may have actually eaten a predominantly vegan diet.
This theory comes from recent findings described in the journal Nature, which examined the oldest examples of dental plaque in the world from Neanderthal individuals found in Belgium and Spain.
While for years, people believed that Neanderthals and modern humans were different species who never interbred, recent studies, specifically a 2010 study published in Science magazine, showed that Neanderthal and human DNA are very similar (99.7 percent as compared to chimpanzees’, at 99.8), and researchers of the Neanderthal Genome Project found that 2.5 percent of an average non-African human’s genome is made up of Neanderthal DNA, seeming to show that humans and Neanderthals could have interbred as recently as 37,000 years ago.
These archaic humans only began eating meat around 36,000 years ago, the findings show, as the Spanish Neanderthals examined in the study, who lived around 48,000 years ago, ate no detectable meat at all, preferring a diet rich in mushrooms, nuts, and moss.
“It really looks like meat is kind of a new idea for hominids,” lead author Laura Weyrich, a paleomicrobiologist at the University of Adelaide in Australia, told the Los Angeles Times.
But possibly even more interesting is that these vegetarian hominids were evidently “very capable and intelligent individuals that could pass down information from generation to generation,” according to Weyrich, including information about the specific health benefits of certain plants.
One of the hominids had both a painful dental abscess and a nasty gastrointestinal bug, and in his dental plaque, scientists discovered evidence of poplar, whose bark contains salicylic acid (the active ingredient in aspirin), as well as signs of a natural antibiotic mold, Penicillium rubens, that wasn’t found in the teeth of the other individuals found along with him. In other words, he knew how to self-medicate by choosing the right plants to eat.
“It suggests some elements of behavior in Neanderthals that they were familiar with, and were probably using, medicinal plants for particular health issues,” study author Keith Dobney told WIRED. “That’s the first time ever this has been seen.”
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