Medicinal Plants of the Stone Age

Jacob Schor, ND, FABNO

Summary: Neanderthals used some of the same medicinal herbs we use today.


Neanderthals used herbs as medicine.  A July 2012 report in the journal Naturwissenschaften identifies two herbs they used that are still in common use today.

Neanderthals died off some 24,000 to 30,000 years ago yet Spanish researchers have recently revealed what they ate.  Using state-of-the-art gas chromatography-mass-spectrometry technology, the researchers identified material trapped in the teeth of Neanderthal remains from a cave in northwestern Spain. The Neanderthals remains were discovered in the cave, called El Sidró, in 1994 and been the subject of intense analysis, including DNA sequencing.

Analyzing the tartar still left on the teeth of the skeletal remains revealed that several of the Neanderthal consumed yarrow and chamomile.  Both herbs are too bitter to eat as food so the researchers concluded that they were consumed for their medicinal effect.

The Latin name for yarrow is Achillea millefolium.  In Greek mythology the hero Achilles was made nearly invincible by his mother who immersed him as a baby in tea made from yarrow; invincible but for the heel she held him by. This explains the name.  The German Commission E approves yarrow for internal use for loss of appetite and dyspeptic ailments and externally as a bath or as a compress for skin inflammation, slow healing wounds, and bacterial or fungal infections.

Chamomile is widely used in herbal medicine for ‘sore stomach’, irritable bowel syndrome, and as a gentle sleep aid.  Chamomile is what Peter Rabbit’s mother gave him after Mister McGregor chased him through the garden.

Use of botanical medicines goes further back in time, than we might have thought, all the way back to prehistory. It’s intriguing to wonder what these herbs were being used to treat all those thousands of years ago.  Perhaps a stomach ache?  A stressful day hunting and gathering?  We will never know.





Hardy K, Buckley S, Collins MJ, et al. Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus.

Naturwissenschaften. 2012 Jul 18.