Neanderthal dental tartar reveals plant-based diet – and drugs

Analysis of teeth of Spanish Neanderthals shows diet of pine nuts, mushrooms and moss and indicates possible self-medication for pain and diarrhoea

A diet of pine nuts, mushrooms and moss might sound like modernist cuisine, but it turns out it was standard fare for Spanish Neanderthals.

Researchers studying the teeth of the heavy-browed hominids have discovered that while Neanderthals in Belgium were chomping on woolly rhinoceros, those further south were surviving on plants and may even have used naturally occurring painkillers to ease toothache.

The findings, the researchers say, are yet another blow to the popular misconception of Neanderthals as brutish simpletons.

Neanderthals, not surprisingly, are doing different things, exploiting different things, in different places, said Keith Dobney, a bioarchaeologist and co-author of the research from the University of Liverpool.

Writing in the journal Nature, Dobney and an international team of colleagues describe how they analysed ancient DNA from microbes and food debris preserved in the dental tartar, or calculus, of three Neanderthals dating from 42,000 to 50,000 years ago. Two of the individuals were from the El Sidrn cave in Spain while one was from the Spy Cave in Belgium.

The results reveal that northern Neanderthals had a wide-ranging diet, with evidence of a mushroom known as grey shag in their tartar, together with traces of woolly rhinoceros and wild sheep.

By contrast Neanderthals from El Sidrn showed no evidence of meat eating instead they appear to have survived on a mixture of forest moss, pine nuts and a mushroom known as split gill.

The difference was further backed up by DNA-based analysis of the diversity and make-up of microbial communities that had lived in the Neanderthals mouths.

The findings support previous studies suggesting that the Neanderthals of El Sidrn ate little meat, although Dobney cautioned against drawing broader conclusions, citing the small sample size of the latest study. I hesitate to say that we have clear, definitive proof that Neanderthals in Spain were vegetarian, he said.

Indeed, research looking at marks on the bones of Neanderthals from El Sidrn has suggested they might been the victims of cannibalism. While Dobney does not rule out the possibility, he points out that the two Neanderthals in the latest study are unlikely to have been feasting on their relatives.

You would expect if Neanderthals were eating each other, that the quantity of Neanderthal DNA would be a lot higher in [the tartar] it would be part of the food debris, he said. [That] doesnt appear to be the case.

One of the Spanish Neanderthals is known to have had a painful dental abscess, while analysis of the tartar from the same individual yielded evidence of a parasite known to cause diarrhoea in humans.

To cope, the researchers add, the unfortunate individual might have been self-medicating. While previous work has suggested the El Sidrn Neanderthals might have exploited yarrow and chamomile, the tartar of the unwell individual shows evidence of poplar, which contains the active ingredient of aspirin, salicylic acid, and a species of penicillium fungus, suggesting the Neanderthal might have benefited from a natural source of antibiotics.

Potentially this is evidence of more sophisticated behaviour in terms of knowledge of medicinal plants, said Dobey. The idea that Neanderthals were a bit simple and just dragging their knuckles around is one that has gone a long time ago, certainly in the anthropological world.

Dobney believes the new approach could prove valuable in understanding the evolution not only of our diet but also of our microbiota, suggesting similar analysis be carried out on the remains of even earlier hominid relatives. We can really start to mine this amazing record of our joint evolutionary history with these key microorganisms that are basically part of our lives and keep us alive, he said.

Chris Stringer, a palaeoanthropologist and expert in human origins from the Natural History Museum in London who was not involved in the research, welcomed the study. It is tremendous work and very exciting, he said.

But, he warns, the dental tartar might not tell the full story, since it might not preserve all components of a Neanderthals diet, nor the proportions in which they were eaten. Contamination from DNA preserved in sediments in the cave must also be considered, he said, while the plant material found in meat-eating Neanderthals might, at least in part, have come from the hominids eating the stomach contents of their prey.

Stringer is also enthusiastic about the revelations around the Neanderthals microbiota. To have that data from inside the mouth of a Neanderthal from 50,000 years ago is astonishing stuff, he said.

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