It was the strangest thing. While picking through the dental plaque on 50,000-year-old Neanderthal teeth from a cave in Spain, the anthropologist Karen Hardy found some bits of yarrow and camomile.
OK, it might not sound that strange. You’re probably more perplexed by someone choosing to look at ancient dental plaque for a living. But yarrow and camomile are not known for being particularly nutritious—so to a scientist, the obvious question is why would you eat them. Hardy mooted two possibilities: that Neanderthals used these plants as medicine or, intriguingly, as seasoning for other food. Other anthropologists—usually an argumentative bunch—gave both ideas a surprisingly positive reception. But at the same time, no one seemed prepared to say which theory they thought was right. As a science journalist who trained as a palaeontologist, this made me uneasy.
There seemed two ways forward. I could inflict some injuries on myself, eat yarrow and camomile, and watch how well I healed. Or I could cook and eat a typical Neanderthal meal, and see whether adding these plants made it tastier. Not being much of a masochist, I went for option two. As it turned out, self-mutilation might have been simpler.
Martin Jones, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, told me that the Neanderthal way of cooking was to “light a fire and just chuck your food in”. A Neanderthal did not have pots, pans, bowls or containers of any sort—let alone a small flat in Wimbledon with a gas oven. I would have to build a wood fire somewhere, but our flat doesn’t have a garden. So I found myself knocking at the door of our very tolerant neighbours, Nick and Kate. “I need to eat like a Neanderthal for an evening. Do you mind if I build a fire in your back garden tomorrow and roast stuff on it?” They agreed. As I said, they’re tolerant.
A friend in Nottingham, who is a keen forager, kindly sent down a parcel of freshly picked yarrow and camomile. But what should we cook with it? Martin Jones said that Neanderthals ate, among other things, gazelle, horse and tortoise. I wasn’t going to find that in London; not legally. Deer seemed a suitable substitute for gazelle, so after calling a few local butchers in search of venison, we had our meat.
There was one other problem. It was once thought that Neanderthals were strictly carnivores, but we now know that they ate a wide variety of plants. The majority of their diet was beans and nuts—they had a particular fondness for pistachios. But if I eat even one bean or nut I go into anaphylactic shock. True, wild barley was on the list of more than 50 plant species found at a Neanderthal site in Israel, so I could add that to the menu—but someone else would need to tackle the legumes and nuts. Luckily my wife, Thalia—another tolerant type—said she’d help.
So as the flames leapt high from oak we’d gathered from Wimbledon Common, our Neanderthal experiment began. First off, we tried eating some uncooked camomile and yarrow. They do have flavour; whether it’s a flavour that anyone likes was a point of contention. I thought camomile tasted a bit like parsley; Kate proposed “dirt” as a more accurate description. Thalia suggested yarrow was “peppery”; Nick said it was “a bit like eating raw lavender”. None of us could imagine choosing to eat these plants on their own.
The next step was to try unadorned venison, cooked—as advised by the manager of a local grill—on a chunk of oak that had been soaked in water to stop it catching fire. It was utterly flavourless. Adding bits of yarrow and camomile as we chewed our way through the tough meat didn’t help. “I really wish I could have some salt on this,” muttered Thalia. Morale was sinking; the idea of opening the bottle of wine we had waiting at the other end of the garden began to gain force. But we stuck to our Neanderthal ways, and moved on to the vegetable course.
Unlike meat, lentils and barley can’t simply be thrown on a fire. When I’d asked Martin Jones for advice, he told me the Neanderthal way was to “bash them"—to be precise, “bash them hard and soak the fragments over night. Then cook the mash on cabbage leaves”. So we scooped softened barley and lentils onto cabbage leaves, cooked them and, ten minutes later, ate the stuff off the charred leaves using our fingers like, well, Neanderthals. On their own, the barley and beans were a flavourless mush. Adding yarrow and camomile gave a slight tang—akin to a small squeeze of lemon—but nothing you’d call pleasant.
I wandered over to the bottle of rosé, took a swig and stared out at the dark sky. How did the Neanderthals manage? This food was horrible. And then Thalia, still cooking on the coals, began to laugh. In my absence, she had tried an experiment. By placing a cabbage leaf on a piece of burning oak, layering yarrow, camomile and venison on top, then covering the mix with a second leaf of cabbage, she had created something rather wonderful.
A zesty, peppery bitterness had infused the meat with remarkable flavour. This, I realised, was something I actually enjoyed eating. When we tried a similar method of cooking with the barley, the result was equally good. On a cool September night, in suburban south-west London, we had made a prehistorical culinary breakthrough.
Does this mean that the idea of Neanderthals using yarrow and camomile for medicinal purposes is wrong? Absolutely not, they may well have done so. But the question of whether these plants were used as seasonings, to my mind, has been pretty much answered—at least in Wimbledon. Without yarrow and camomile stuck to their teeth, the poor Neanderthals would have died of dietary boredom.