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

Dental plaque preserved in fossilized teeth confirms that Neandertals were flexible eaters and may have self-medicated with an ancient equivalent of aspirin.

DNA recovered from calcified plaque on teeth from four Neandertal individuals suggest that those from the grasslands around Beligum’s Spy cave ate woolly rhinoceros and wild sheep, while their counterparts from the forested El Sidrón cave in Spain 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 to them, Laura Weyrich, a microbiologist at the University of Adelaide in Australia, and her colleagues report March 8 in Nature.

The best-preserved Neandertal 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.

Read another version of this article at Science News for Students

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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