Neanderthals are our closest extinct relatives. They left Africa some 200,000 years ago to venture into Eurasia long before humans did. It is believed that, for a while, Neanderthals and our early human ancestors lived alongside each other in Europe. While Neanderthals looked quite similar to us, they are often thought of as our dumber, more brute caveman relatives.
New research, however, has discovered that they may have been more intelligent than we think. While antibiotics and painkillers are often touted as the miracles of modern medicine, it appears that our early relatives were using them tens of thousands of years before we first discovered them.
Ancient DNA sampled from the dental plaque on the teeth of Neanderthals has provided new insights into their dietary habits and knowledge of plant-based medicines to treat pain and disease. According to a recent analysis published in the journal Nature, Neanderthals used a natural form of aspirin for pain relief and a natural antibiotic (Penicillium) from molded herbaceous material.
Not all Neanderthals were predominantly meat eaters
The research was conducted by an international team led by the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA and Dental School, in cooperation with the University of Liverpool in the U.K. The team analyzed plaque samples from the teeth of four Neanderthals found at the cave sites of Spy in Belgium and El Sidrón in Asturias, Spain.
The four skeletons range from 42,000 to around 50,000 years old, making it the oldest dental plaque samples ever to be analyzed. The team found that the Neanderthals from Spy cave consumed mainly meat supplemented with wild mushrooms, while those from El Sidrón cave appeared to live a vegetarian lifestyle, feasting on pine nuts, moss, mushrooms, and tree bark. While Neanderthals were thought to be enthusiastic meat eaters, the revelation that some of our ancient ancestors were vegetarians came as a big surprise to the researchers.
“We were surprised not to find any remains of meat in the Asturias Neanderthals, given that they were thought to be predominantly meat eaters. However, we have found evidence they enjoyed a varied diet including a wide range of plants. What’s more, some of these plants may well have been cooked before being eaten,” said one of the researchers, Dr. Antonio Rosas, of Spain’s National Natural Science Museum.
Neanderthals possessed a sound knowledge of medicinal plants
But what was even more surprising to the research team was that Neanderthals from El Sidrón apparently had an excellent understanding of medicinal plants and their various anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving benefits, which stands in great contrast to the simplistic view we have of our ancient relatives.
Data showed that one of the El Sidrón Neanderthals must have been in considerable pain as he was clearly quite sick. He had a hole in his jawbone caused by a dental abscess, and they also discovered that he had an intestinal parasite, Enterocytozoon bieneusi, which causes severe gastrointestinal problems, including serious acute diarrhea.
After analysis of his plaque sample, researchers found that he was self-medicating to cure his medical conditions. They found evidence that he was munching on poplar, a tree which bark, roots, and leaves contain salicylic acid, the main ingredient of aspirin and other painkillers. Next to poplar, the researchers also found traces of the Penicillium fungus, a natural antibiotic, in the plaque sample.
Professor Alan Cooper, of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at Adelaide University, who helped carry out the genetic analysis, said that these findings clearly show Neanderthals were more sophisticated than previously thought. Especially the use of antibiotics is remarkable as it took modern medicine over 40,000 years more to discover the antibiotic penicillin accidentally.
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