Ancient dental plaque tells tales of Neandertal diet and disease

upper jaw from Neandertal

Calcified dental plaque from the upper jaw of a young Neandertal male from El Sidrón cave in Spain reveals insights into his vegetarian diet and dental health problems.

Paleoanthropology Group MNCN-CSIC

Plaque preserved in fossilized teeth confirms that Neandertals were flexible eaters and hints that they self-medicated with an ancient equivalent of aspirin.

DNA recovered from calcified plaque on teeth from four Neandertals suggests that those from grassland areas around Belgium’s Spy cave ate woolly rhinoceros and wild sheep, while their counterparts from the forested region around Spain’s El Sidrón cave consumed a menu of moss, mushrooms and pine nuts.

The evidence bolsters an argument that Neandertals’ diets spanned the spectrum of carnivory and herbivory based on the resources available, microbiologist Laura Weyrich of the University of Adelaide in Australia and colleagues report online March 8 in Nature.

The best-preserved remains were from a young male from El Sidrón whose teeth showed signs of an abscess. DNA from a diarrhea-inducing stomach bug and several gum disease pathogens turned up in his plaque. Genetic material from poplar trees, which contain the pain-killing aspirin ingredient salicylic acid, and a plant mold that makes the antibiotic penicillin hint that he may have used natural medication to ease his ailments.

The researchers were even able to extract an almost-complete genetic blueprint, or genome, for one ancient microbe, Methanobrevibacter oralis. At roughly 48,000 years old, it’s the oldest microbial genome sequenced, the researchers report.

Helen Thompson is the multimedia editor. 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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