New Analysis Reveals Neanderthal Drug Use

Neanderthals are commonly seen as ferocious carnivores, but a study of their dental plaque has observed the latter are adaptable, changing their diet to suit local conditions. In what is today modern-day Belgium, this did indeed mean a dinner of woolly rhinoceros, but on the Iberian Peninsular, they chose a snack of mushrooms. More amazingly, it seems they had a knowledge of herbal medication we have only recently matched.

These findings come from a ground-breaking analyse led by Dr Laura Weyrich of Adelaide University, who found DNA in the hard plaque known as calculus on fossilized Neanderthal jaws. Weyrich was able to distinguish DNA from the meals of five Neanderthals from different parts of Europe.

Two specimens, detected near Spy, Belgium, had DNA from woolly rhinos and wild sheep in their teeth, Weyrich reports in Nature. Two from El Sidrn, Spain, on the other hand, had been eating pine nuts, moss, and mushrooms. Weyrich told IFLScience the area around El Sidrn was then heavily forested, and unlikely to support many big grazing animals, so it is not surprising the inhabitants ate a largely vegetarian diet.

The study also found DNA from mouth bacteria, which had more in common with that from a modern chimpanzee than yours or mine. Weyrich attributes this not just to the changes run on our mouths by toothbrushes and paste, but the influence of centuries of agriculture.

One of the Spanish Neanderthals was apparently sick. The combination of a dental abscess and an unpleasant stomach bug would have attained life very uncomfortable, but it seems the tribe had some good ideas on what to do. The sick person was consuming both poplar bark and grass with Penicillium mold on it. Poplar bark contains aspirin, while Penicillium is the original source of penicillin.

Weyrich told IFLScience that a lot of the grasses the Neanderthals ate probably had mold on them and they may not have known what cured them, only that certain foods stimulated them feel better when sick. Nevertheless, she is not well informed any other cases of humans trying out Penicillium before Alexander Fleming’s lucky find. Neanderthals maybe beat humen to one of the greatest scientific discoveries by at the least 48,000 years.

No one has yet used dental plaque to conduct a similar analysis of the feeing habits of our more direct ancestors. Weyrich said we don’t know if the Dna extracted came from the last snack the Neanderthals ate before they died, or were an earlier selection that happened to get stuck in their teeth. Nevertheless, the findings fit well with previous attempts to establish Neanderthal diets based on the isotopes in their bones routes in which their teeth wore down.


This cartoon of El Sidron Neandertals depicts food items detected in their dental plaque in this study. Abel Grau/ Comunicacin CSIC

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