Science Update: Paleolithic Herbalism

Jacob’s Bridge (Gesher Benot Ya’aqov) is an archaeological site in Israel, at a historic crossing of the river Jordan, just north of the Sea of Galilee. It has been a crossroads for thousands of years – for trade, for culture, and for migration of human populations. But in one particular area, archaeologists have been working on a site that is much older – closer to 800,000 years – where a wealth of evidence from stone-age culture has been preserved under layers of mud and water. The prehistoric humans who lived here (archaeologists estimate they occupied the site for close to 100,000 years!) were part of an ancient migration from Africa and into Europe and Asia.

Nira Alperson-Afil, who works at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has been studying this site extensively. She has been part of the research team that, at this site, uncovered perhaps the earliest evidence of human control of fire,1 as well as what seems to be a basic organization of the living and working spaces into sleeping, cooking, and manufacturing areas.2 Inhabitants created advanced stone tools, using rock hammers but also more subtle tools such as animal antlers, that were used for building, hunting, and (presumably) preparing and cooking plants for food.

It is usually difficult to accurately characterize botanical remains form that long ago, because plants spoil very easily. But now, botanists and zoologists from Tel Aviv and Bar-Ilan Universities have teamed up with the archaeologists from the Hebrew University and discovered an incredible cache of plant remains at the Jacob’s Bridge site, impeccably preserved by the unique conditions there.3 What they found gives us a unique glimpse of a true “Paleolithic” diet, and some additional insight as well.

First off, the evidence shows over 55 species used for food and nutrition, and close to that many additional species that the researchers classify as “non-edible”. Out of this extensive list, there are a few points worth noting: some plants are now extinct (for example, some specific water lilies harvested for their starchy tubers); humans consumed a wide range of different foods for basic nutrition (mostly, as you might assume, starchy roots and tubers, but also seeds, nuts, and fruits when seasonally available); and cooking played a vital role to improve the nutrient availability of foods and, in some cases, neutralize their toxicity (further evidence that cooking was an essential advancement that made early humans successful).4

But second, it is fascinating to see what botanical species are included in the “non-edible” section of the list: we see common friends such as fennel seed, chamomile, willow, Bupleurum, St. Johns Wort, castor, buttercups, a range of Euphorbias, Vitex and Verbena. Maidenhair fern and clover leaves, along with other like sweet clover, pennyroyal, long-leaved plantain, and bugle (Ajuga), cross the line between “edible” (often for their roots and seeds) and “non-edible” (leaves and stems) in the researcher’s lists. These less food-like plants were found in the cooking and living areas of the archaeological site, showing that they were at least as important and used as the food plants were. Of course, we’ve known humans have used “non-edible” plants throughout their history: the work of Karen Hardy and others, for example, discovered the remnants of such plants in the plaque of Neanderthal skulls from 50,000 years ago.5 But the Jacob’s Bridge site is by far the oldest evidence of the plant species used by Paleolithic humans: some were raw, some were cooked, and many are what we today would call medicinal herbs.

All said, this recent research paints an intimate picture of the plant-based Paleolithic life: a range of starchy tubers, seeds and greens used for their macronutrient contact was consumed part-and-parcel with a whole apothecary of medicinal plants that contain only traces of macronutrients. This dovetails well with the work of other archaeobotanists and archaeogeneticists (see, for instance, the work of Christina Warrinner who is a leading tooth-plaque researcher)6 who generally find a wide range of plants in the diets of ancient humans. Common threads include the presence of starchy, carb-rich tubers; high volumes of wild green plants, seeds, and berries; and many plants used only for their secondary, or medicinal, compounds. One might understand how a medicinal plant culture could have developed by 50,000 years ago, but it is incredible to see how this culture existed even 800,000 years ago. This was the time of Homo erectus, and of the migrations out of Africa. Wherever we went, we learned about and used the wild medicinal species growing there. Our relationship with these allies was – and still is – a crucial part of our evolutionary fitness, of our species’ ability to adapt in a wide range of conditions. We can only hope that the archaeologists of the future will find those allies in the remnants of our 21st century civilization, too. After all, we have been herbalists since before we were human.

1. Goren-Inbar, Naama, et al. "Evidence of hominin control of fire at Gesher Benot Yaaqov, Israel." Science 304.5671 (2004): 725-727.

2. Alperson-Afil, Nira, et al. "Spatial organization of hominin activities at Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, Israel." Science 326.5960 (2009): 1677-1680.

3. Melamed, Yoel, et al. "The plant component of an Acheulian diet at Gesher Benot Ya ‘aqov, Israel." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2016): 201607872.

4. Wrangham RW (2009) Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (Basic Books, New York).

5. Hardy, Karen, et al. "Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus." Naturwissenschaften 99.8 (2012): 617-626.

6. Warinner, C., et al. "Dental calculus: A novel biomolecular reservoir of ancient dietary and health indicators." Society for American Archaeology 364 (2012).

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