While we can claim some pretty remarkable advances in human health, a whole different species is now getting credit for the earliest use of medicine. Scientists just found proof of prehistoric medical knowledge that pushes the world of medicine back nearly 40,000 years! Who was the first to know about pain relief? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to find out.
From vision correction to marrow replacements, we can do some pretty amazing things to address our medical needs. All of this is possible because it builds on discoveries and inventions of the past. In terms of our earliest medical rock stars, we tend to think of folks like Hippocrates of Greece or perhaps some medically inclined Asian thinkers from the Iron Age. Long before all that, we homo sapiens were still practicing herbalism and using plants as medicines. The big question though is, how did we learn about this?
In a recent dig scientists studied dental and plaque remains that identified the earliest known use of plants as medicine. These fossils belonged to our closest and extinct relatives, the Neanderthals. By studying these fossils there were able to draw a few new conclusions. First of all, they were able to study the differences in Neanderthal diets. Remains found in northern Europe tend to have a meat heavy diet. These recently studied fossils, however, come from southern Europe in Spain. The study revealed that these southern Neanderthals primarily ate nuts, veggies, moss, and bark.
In addition to this they were able to see that these fossils were consuming Poplar tree bark as well. This particular bark is a good source of Salicylic Acid, the active ingredient in Aspirin. These southern European Neanderthals are now the earliest fossil record we have of hominids consuming specific plants for medical use. Just like how we still occasionally need some pain relief, the Neanderthals did too. Consider for a moment the world they lived in. Constantly protecting themselves from predators, long hikes through the elements, and putting up with other Neanderthals that just endlessly keep talking. Clearly many reasons for headaches and other pains. The specimens found in this cave were at least aware of how to help address aches and pains.
Perhaps during some of our earliest encounters with the Neanderthal species we were given a lesson in how to cure aches and pains using specific tree barks? Perhaps the Neanderthals picked it up from an even earlier species? There are still many questions left to be answered, but for now these scientists can confirm that this is currently the earliest known form of medical knowledge. These forward thinking, medically contentious, and vegetarian Neanderthals are also now considered to be the world’s earliest hipsters.