Fossils point to Neandertal diets — and medicine use

One guy may have treated his toothache with “natural” aspirin and penicillin


Rock-like plaque from the upper jaw of a young Neandertal male reveals clues to his vegetarian diet and poor dental health.

Paleoanthropology Group MNCN-CSIC

Fossil teeth from Neandertals show these folk ate a varied diet. Signs suggest that at least one individual had a series of infections.  He may even have self-medicated using all-natural versions of aspirin and penicillin. 

Scientists came to these conclusions after analyzing ancient dental plaque (Plak) on fossil remains.

In the mouth, a community of bacterial species tends to colonize teeth. This gooey, germy community is what dentists call plaque. And they recommend brushing teeth regularly to evict such microbial squatters. After all, they can erode teeth and lead to cavities.

Scientists have just analyzed DNA from the dental plaque found on teeth from four Neandertals. The fossil remains of these folk turned up in European caves. Individuals from Belgium’s Spy cave appear to have dined on woolly rhinoceros and wild sheep. That makes sense. The local countryside, back in their day, had been a broad grassland. In contrast, Neandertals at the El Sidrón cave in Spain had been eating mosses, mushrooms and pine nuts. That fits with this region having been forested. (The scientists were not successful in getting good DNA data from the fossil teeth of a fifth individual, found in Italy.)

The new findings support the idea that Neandertals ate a broad spectrum of foods. Whether their diets were based on meats or plants likely reflected the resources around them, concludes Laura Weyrich. She’s a microbiologist, someone who studies germs. She works at the University of Adelaide in Australia. She and her colleagues described their new findings March 8 in Nature.

The best-preserved Neandertal plaque came from a young male at El Sidrón. One of his teeth had an abscess. That’s a pus-filled infection. But it was not this lad’s only problem. His plaque preserved DNA from a stomach germ that causes a diarrheal disease. There were also several microbes present that can cause gum disease.

Especially interesting: This guy may have been treating his infections. For instance, his plaque held genetic material from poplar trees. Poplars are a natural source of salicylic acid. That’s the active ingredient in the modern pain-killer known as aspirin. The scientists also turned up DNA from the same mold that makes the antibiotic penicillin.

The researchers were even able to extract an almost-complete genetic blueprint, or genome, for one of the dental microbes. Warning: Its name is a mouthful: Methanobrevibacter oralis. It has the honor of being the oldest microbe genome ever decoded, the researchers note.

Helen Thompson is the associate digital editor at Science News. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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