An analysis of dental plaque recently discovered on the fossilized teeth of Neanderthals reveals that some of our prehistoric ancestors ate a meat-free diet and used natural forms of penicillin and aspirin.
A team of scientists uncovered fossilized teeth of neanderthals from Asturias, Spain, and Belgium and extracted DNA from the plaque to find out what they had eaten. The results showed remnants of wild mushrooms, pine nuts, and moss, but no meat. This defies the widely accepted notion that neanderthals were predominantly meat eaters.
Another surprising discovery was evidence of sophisticated methods of self-medication.
The enamel and dentine of one Neanderthal’s upper teeth were chipped, and it is thought he may have used his like a third hand when sharpening stone tools.
But there were also signs that he was in severe pain and had taken surprising advanced steps to alleviate it.
Dr Rosas said: “We have evidence that this Neanderthal self-medicated.
“We have discovered that the plaque preserved in his teeth contains sequences of the pathogen Enterocytozoon bieneusi, which causes gastrointestinal problems, including serious diarrhoea.
“Additionally, thanks to a hole in his jaw we know he had a dental abscess. Both health issues must have caused him intense pain.”
The plaque contained traces of the penicillium fungus, the natural antibiotic from which the drug penicillin is derived, and also poplar. That tree’s bark, roots and leaves all contain salicylic acid, which is used in aspirin and other painkillers.
Professor Alan Cooper, of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at Adelaide University, who helped carry out the genetic analysis, said the evidence showed Neanderthals were more sophisticated than previously thought.
“Apparently, Neandertals possessed a good knowledge of medicinal plants and their various anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, and seem to be self-medicating,” he said.