MAR 08, 2017 07:57 PM PST

Neanderthals had Medicinal Remedies

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

Neanderthals are our closest extinct relative, and through their DNA scientists have gained new insight into their diet, behavior, and evolutionary background, revealing that they used medicines, in the form of plants, to alleviate pain and treat illness. The work has shown a great deal of complexity in the activities of Neanderthal groups. The findings, which are summarized in the video below, were published in Nature by the University of Adelaide's Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) and Dental School in collaboration with the University of Liverpool in the UK.

"Dental plaque traps microorganisms that lived in the mouth and pathogens found in the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract, as well as bits of food stuck in the teeth - preserving the DNA for thousands of years," explained the lead author of the work, Dr Laura Weyrich, an ARC Discovery Early Career Research Fellow with ACAD. "Genetic analysis of that DNA 'locked-up' in plaque, represents a unique window into Neanderthal lifestyle - revealing new details of what they ate, what their health was like and how the environment impacted their behavior."

Samples were taken from sites in Spy in Belgium and El Sidrón in Spain. Those four dental plaque specimens were 42,000 to around 50,000 years old, making them the oldest dental plaque ever genetically assayed. The team also reconstructed the oldest bacterial genome ever sequenced.

"We found that the Neanderthals from Spy Cave consumed woolly rhinoceros and European wild sheep, supplemented with wild mushrooms," said Professor Alan Cooper, the Director of ACAD. "Those from El Sidrón Cave on the other hand showed no evidence for meat consumption, but appeared instead to have a largely vegetarian diet, comprising pine nuts, moss, mushrooms and tree bark - showing quite different lifestyles between the two groups."

"One of the most surprising finds, however, was in a Neanderthal from El Sidrón, who suffered from a dental abscess visible on the jawbone. The plaque showed that he also had an intestinal parasite that causes acute diarrhea, so clearly he was quite sick. He was eating poplar, which contains the pain killer salicylic acid (the active ingredient of aspirin), and we could also detect a natural antibiotic mold (Penicillium) not seen in the other specimens."

"Apparently, Neanderthals possessed a good knowledge of medicinal plants and their various anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, and seem to be self-medicating. The use of antibiotics would be very surprising, as this is more than 40,000 years before we developed penicillin. Certainly our findings contrast markedly with the rather simplistic view of our ancient relatives in popular imagination."

Modern humans have a connection to Neanderthals through common pathogenic microbes, including the bacteria responsible for gum disease. The ancient microbe,  Methanobrevibacter oralis can be core;aged with gum disease. The research indicates that humans and Neanderthals exchanged microbes as far back as 180,000 years ago, which was a long time after the species diverged.

El Sidron: Working in the Tunnel of Bones cave, where 12 Neandertal specimens dating around 49,000 years ago have been recovered. / Credit: Paleoanthropology Group MNCN-CSIC; Photo by Antonio Rosas)

The research also highlighted how dynamic the microbial population has become in recent times. Oral bacteria in Neanderthals, and in ancient and modern humans is linked to the level of meat consumption;  Spanish Neanderthals were correlated with chimpanzees and foraging ancestors in Africa. However in the Belgian Neanderthals the bacteria population was like that of early hunter gatherers, and like modern humans and early farmers.

"Not only can we now access direct evidence of what our ancestors were eating, but differences in diet and lifestyle also seem to be reflected in the commensal bacteria that lived in the mouths of both Neanderthals and modern humans," said Professor Keith Dobney of the University of Liverpool.

"Major changes in what we eat have, however, significantly altered the balance of these microbial communities over thousands of years, which in turn continue to have fundamental consequences for our own health and well-being. This extraordinary window on the past is providing us with new ways to explore and understand our evolutionary history through the microorganisms that lived in us and with us."

 

Sources: AAAS/Eurekalert! via University of Adelaide, Nature

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on 28 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 60 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
You May Also Like
JUL 04, 2018
Videos
JUL 04, 2018
How Did Viruses Originate?
There is still a debate about whether or not viruses are a form of life, and we really don't know where they came from....
JUL 08, 2018
Microbiology
JUL 08, 2018
Natural Molecule has a Potent Anti-inflammatory Impact
A compound that is naturally made by a bacterium called Francisella tularensis can impair the immune response....
JUL 24, 2018
Microbiology
JUL 24, 2018
Salmonella Outbreak Linked to Raw Turkey Products
Researchers at the CDC are trying to learn more about a rash of Salmonella infections....
SEP 09, 2018
Videos
SEP 09, 2018
Black Hairy Tongue - A Shocking Antibiotic Side Effect
A 55-year-old woman experienced a rare side effect of antibiotics while being treated for an infection....
OCT 02, 2018
Videos
OCT 02, 2018
Learning how Bacterial Chemicals Impact Human Health
We play host to a huge number of microbes, and all the chemicals that they produce....
OCT 04, 2018
Microbiology
OCT 04, 2018
Repeated Exposure to Artificial Sweeteners Harms gut Microbes
Artificial sweeteners have been used in foods for decades. While they seem safe for us, they may not be for bacteria....
Loading Comments...