Fossils point to Neandertal diets — and medicine use | Science News for Students

Fossils point to Neandertal diets — and medicine use

One guy may have treated his toothache with “natural” aspirin and penicillin
Mar 27, 2017 — 7:10 am EST

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: It’s name is a mouthful: Methanobrevibacter oralis. It has the honor of being the oldest microbe genome ever decoded, the researchers note.

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

abscess    A pocket of pus caused by some infection.

antibiotic     A germ-killing substance, usually prescribed as a medicine (or sometimes as a feed additive to promote the growth of livestock). It does not work against viruses.

aspirin     A common non-prescription drug, also known as acetylsalicylic acid. For more than a century, it has been widely used to treat headaches, joint pain, muscle pain, toothaches and more. It also reduces fevers and inflammation. Ancient papyrus texts indicate that as long as 5,000 years ago, the Sumerians and Egyptians were using willow bark (the source of aspirin’s active ingredient) to treat aches and pains.

bacterial     Having to do with bacteria, single-celled organisms. 

cavity     (in dentistry) a tiny hole in a tooth that develops over time. Cavities are more likely to happen when a person eats a lot of sugar or does not brush and floss regularly. Dentists refer to these as caries.       

colleague     Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.

diarrhea      (adj. diarrheal) Loose, watery stool (feces) that can be a symptom of many types of microbial infections affecting the gut.

diet     The foods and liquids ingested by an animal to provide the nutrition it needs to grow and maintain health.

DNA     (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) A long, double-stranded and spiral-shaped molecule inside most living cells that carries genetic instructions. It is built on a backbone of phosphorus, oxygen, and carbon atoms. In all living things, from plants and animals to microbes, these instructions tell cells which molecules to make.

erode     Gradual removal of soil or stone, caused by the flow of water or the movement of winds. Some chemicals, such as acids, may do the same thing to various minerals.

fossil     Any preserved remains or traces of ancient life. There are many different types of fossils: The bones and other body parts of dinosaurs are called “body fossils.” Things like footprints are called “trace fossils.” Even specimens of dinosaur poop are fossils. The process of forming fossils is called fossilization.

genetic     Having to do with chromosomes, DNA and the genes contained within DNA. The field of science dealing with these biological instructions is known as genetics. 

genome     The complete set of genes or genetic material in a cell or an organism. 

germ     Any one-celled microorganism, such as a bacterium, fungal species or virus particle. Some germs cause disease. Others can promote the health of higher-order organisms, including birds and mammals. The health effects of most germs, however, remain unknown.

infection     A disease that can spread from one organism to another. It’s usually caused by some sort of germ.

microbe     Short for microorganism. A living thing that is too small to see with the unaided eye, including bacteria.

microbiology    The study of microorganisms, principally bacteria, fungi and viruses. Scientists who study microbes and the infections they can cause or ways that they can interact with their environment are known as microbiologists.

Neandertal     A species (Homo neanderthalensis) that lived in Europe and parts of Asia from about 200,000 years ago to roughly 28,000 years ago.

penicillin     The first antibiotic (although not the first one used on people), it’s a natural product that comes from a mold. In 1928, Alexander Fleming, a British scientist, discovered that it could kill certain bacteria. He would later share the 1945 Nobel Prize in Medicine for this discovery.

plaque     (in dental medicine) A biofilm, or community of bacterial species, that grows on teeth and other surfaces in the mouth.

salicylic acid    The main ingredient in a widely used pain reliever known as aspirin. It's a colorless crystalline compound that tends to reduce inflammation. It takes its name from Salix, the Latin word for willow, a tree whose bark makes this compound. This same compound can also be derived from several other plant sources.

species     A group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.

spectrum     (plural: spectra) A range of related things that appear in some order.


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Journal: L.S. Weyrich et al. Neanderthal behaviour, diet, and disease inferred from ancient DNA in dental calculus. Nature. Published online March 8, 2017. doi:10.1038/nature21674.