[Image credit: Karen Carr at the Smithsonian]
Our closest, extinct, cousins the Neanderthals are often thought of as thuggish and unsophisticated, but evidence over the last decade has begun to challenge this picture, indicating that they had a broad range of skills, knowledge and, yes, sensitivity.
There is a lot of evidence from bone assemblages that Neanderthals often behaved as top predators, hunting a wide range of animals including deer, rhinoceroses, bison and even brown bear. In this pursuit they were highly skilled and more successful than hyenas with whom they competed, indicating a high level of strategic intelligence and cooperation.
- Read more about Neanderthal hunting prowess here: ScienceDaily
As well as a good knowledge of animal behaviour Neanderthals also used botanical material. Skeletons excavated in the 1950s from Shanidar cave in northern Iraq indicate that Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers. These skeletons also showed evidence of injuries that had been tended and healed indicating that the sick and wounded had been cared for effectively.
Rick Potts, director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, where the skeletons are now housed, says “The Neanderthals were smart. They had brains the same size as Cro-Magnon [early Homo sapiens] and were very clever at using local resources.”
- Read more about Shanidar Cave Neanderthal on Smithsonian.com
Did Neanderthals use Herbal Medicines?
In 2012 a new study of 50,000-year-old skeletal remains from a cave in Northern Spain detected chemical and food traces on the teeth of five Neanderthals.
Tartar samples revealed microscopic plant and starch granules which appeared to have been roasted prior to consumption. Along with these vegetarian food items was the surprising discovery that these cave dwellers were consuming the herbs yarrow and chamomile, both bitter-tasting plants with little nutritional value. Researches concluded that these herbs were probably consumed for their medicinal properties
- Read more about this find at National Geographic
A more recent study analysed DNA from this Neanderthal dental plaque. In one skeleton they found evidence of poplar – a source of salicylic acid, (the active ingredient of aspirin) as well as traces of the antibiotic mould Penicillium. This individual, and not the others, also had evidence of intestinal parasites which cause acute diarrhoea. This clearly points to the conclusion that Neanderthals had an excellent knowledge of their environment and were self-medicating with specific herbs.
What do these herbal medicines do?
The great Greek physician Dioscorides, identified the pain relieving properties of Black Poplar (Populus nigra) when he recommended it for gout, and Nicholas Culpepper, the English herbalist and astrologer encouraged the external use of the sticky buds for inflammation, such as arthritis, in ointment form. Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist and physician who devised the binomial system naming of plants speaks of Poplar in the treatment of diarrhoea and similar gut disorders. Others promote the use of the bark of this tree for the treatment of haemorrhoids. Since it is rich in tannins (which tighten up swollen, puffy, engorged or inflamed tissues) and in salicylic acid, the uses these writers state are entirely logical and appropriate.
While less commonly used by Medical Herbalists today, it is a perfectly sensible choice, since it is readily and abundantly available in many parts of temperate Europe, and is without toxic side effects when taken in reasonable doses. Professional Medical Herbalists today would tend to use Willow (Salix nigra) or Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) when we want to provide gentle pain relief for these and other conditions, as these are produced by our Herbal Suppliers, but maybe Poplar will come back into common usage again.
For the Neanderthal suffering from parasitic infections and acute diarrhoea, poplar would be effective at easing symptoms through its anti-inflammatory action on the gut as well as reducing pain. Although Poplar is not known to have anti-parasitic effects, the two other herbs that Neanderthals were using certainly do.
One of the best known of all medicinal herbs, sold in every supermarket, Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is known as ‘mother of the gut’ due to its calming influence on an irritated or inflamed gut lining. And as it calms the gut it calms the mind, via the vagus nerve, and in doing this it enables natural sleep to descend. It is therefore considered as a sleep herb in the popular literature, and it is has a sweet, honey-like flavour, as long as it is not too strong or brewed too long when the bitter principles start to be extracted. These, of course, give it an added liver stimulating effect, which strengthens the digestive system but does not taste terribly nice. It was given by a wise mother rabbit to her frightened and exhausted son, Peter Rabbit, with good reason. It is safe for fretful children and anxious minds alike, and a nice warm tea is a perfect medium for it. I often add a teaspoon to a pot of tea in the evening, ensuring a calm and easy sleep. One can add milk to this tea by the way. It does not reduce its efficacy.
Chamomile flowers can be extremely useful in the management of gastritis, or even stomach ulcers. One prepares a triple strength cup of Chamomile tea in the usual way, but let it infuse (with a lid on) until it is cold. Strain it, then refrigerate it. This tea is then drunk, without milk, in four stages. After drinking a quarter one lies down on one side for 10 minutes. Drink the next quarter and lie on the back for 10 minutes. Drink the third quarter and lie on the other side for 10 minutes, then drink the last quarter and lie prone for 10 minutes. This process ensures that the whole of the stomach gets the anti-inflammatory effects of not only the herb but also of the coldness. I have seen this help a great deal, and it can be repeated as often as needed. A whole jug of the tea can be made in the morning and this stomach lining bathing process can be worked with all day. Kind, safe and effective. Other herbs may be required too (such as Slippery elm powder) but the Chamomile is a good start, and it is easy to buy. The supermarket versions are probably not dried at the correct temperature, nor grown at the right height above sea level for a top quality professional version, but it will not be totally useless either, so is always worth a try.
There is some evidence that Chamomile is effective against gut parasites. Romero et al (Phytomedicine, 2013) found that chamomile essential oil could kill a difficult to treat gut parasite, Anisakis, which led to marked healing of the gut damage caused by these parasites.
This English weed known as Yarrow or Milfoil (Achillea millefolium) is an invaluable medicine and one that I use frequently in my practice. A review (Akram M, Sep 2013) stated “It is prescribed in haemorrhoids, headache, bleeding disorders, bruises, cough, influenza, pneumonia, kidney stones, high blood pressure, menstrual disorders, fever, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, osteoarthritis, hemorrhagic disorders, chicken pox, cystitis, diabetes mellitus, indigestion, dyspepsia, eczema, psoriasis and boils.”
Yarrow has a bitter flavour, which is usually a sign of herb that induces improvement in liver function. Studies have confirmed it has a liver protective effect (Yaeesh et al 2006) and improves bile production (Benedek B et al, 2006). However, more relevant to our Neanderthal specimen, perhaps is Yarrow’s ability to open up blood vessels.
One does not often think about the intestines as having a blood supply, but they certainly do, and a very rich and complex one at that. Every bit of the intestine has to be served with a good blood supply, in the form of arterioles, and a good waste removal system in the form of venuoles and lymphatic drainage. Blood is God in the body, and no gut tissue can work properly without an excellent network of blood vessels, and Yarrow improves the functioning of this whole system, markedly [Khan & Gilani, 2011]. Crampy, achey gut symptoms can often be improved by the use of Yarrow, as a tea or a tincture. Studies indicate that regular use can be effective in treating stomach ulcers [Cavalcanti et al, 2006]
The other major use of this herb is in fevers. By opening up blood vessels (which it does throughout the body, but especially in the abdomen and pelvis) it has the effect of letting heat out of these same vessels, effectively bringing a high temperature back to normal by releasing heat from the system. One does not need a large dose of this herb, as it is quite potent. In a tea, for instance, I don’t use more than 10% of Yarrow and would suggest only to infuse it for 5 minutes at the most, as the bitter flavours that are released will otherwise make it too strong to drink. I always add this herb to a ‘Flu Tea mixture (along with Elderflower, Linden and maybe Peppermint) as they work marvellously together to reduce high temperatures, thus allowing the process of having a fever to be more effective over a shorter time.
Yarrow has anti-parasitic effects. Sheep fed yarrow had a far lower rate of natural intestinal worms than those that did not. (Khurshid et al, 2012)
So it seems that our Neanderthal relatives were pretty tuned into their environment and their inner needs, and were able to match the two. And all without one single randomised controlled trial! That is still quite a challenge for most of us modern Homo sapiens.