Stuff between Neanderthal teeth reveals diet of rhino, mushrooms - and suggests they were kissing humans

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 March, 2017, 9:57am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 March, 2017, 10:49pm

Ancient DNA from dental plaque is revealing intriguing new information about Neanderthals including specific menu items in their diet like woolly rhinoceros and wild mushrooms as well as their use of plant-based medicine to cope with pain and illness.

Scientists said on Wednesday they genetically analysed plaque from 48,000-year-old Neanderthal remains from Spain and 36,000-year-old remains from Belgium. The plaque, material that forms on and between teeth, contained food particles as well as microbes from the mouth as well as respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts.

At Belgium’s Spy Cave site, which at the time was a hilly grassy environment home to big game, the Neanderthal diet was meat-based with woolly rhinoceros and wild sheep, along with wild mushrooms. Some 12,000 years earlier, at Spain’s El Sidrón Cave site, which was a densely forested environment likely lacking large animals, the diet was wild mushrooms, pine nuts, moss and tree bark, with no sign of meat.

The two populations apparently lived different lifestyles shaped by their environments, the researchers said.

I definitely believe our research suggests Neanderthals were highly capable, intelligent, likely friendly beings
Paleomicrobiologist Laura Weyrich

The researchers found that an adolescent male from the Spanish site had a painful dental abscess and an intestinal parasite that causes severe diarrhoea. The plaque DNA showed he had consumed poplar bark, containing the pain-killing active ingredient of aspirin, and a natural antibiotic mould.

“This study really gives us a glimpse of what was in a Neanderthal’s medicine cabinet,” said paleomicrobiologist Laura Weyrich of Australia’s University of Adelaide, lead author of the study published in the journal Nature.

Their teeth, said co-author Keith Dobney of the University of Liverpool, are “this fantastic time capsule of biological information that traps not only direct evidence of the food that goes in your mouth, but these amazingly well preserved ecosystems that have evolved with us.”

“Looking at bacteria and pathogens and the evolution of pathogens and the evolution of diets,” he continued, “ we have a whole new discipline, a whole new field of study that is going to change the way we look at the past.”

The findings added to the growing body of knowledge about Neanderthals, the closest extinct relative of our species, Homo Sapiens, and further debunked the outdated notion of them as humankind’s dimwitted cousins.

“I definitely believe our research suggests Neanderthals were highly capable, intelligent, likely friendly beings. We really need to rewrite the history books about their ‘caveman-like’ behaviours. They were very human-like behaviours,” Weyrich said.

The robust, large-browed Neanderthals prospered across Europe and Asia from about 350,000 years ago until going extinct roughly 35,000 years ago after our species, which first appeared in Africa 200,000 years ago, established itself in regions where Neanderthals lived.

Scientists say Neanderthals were intelligent, with complex hunting methods, probable use of spoken language and symbolic objects, and sophisticated fire usage.

Weyrich pointed to one other eyebrow-raising discovery from the new study: a near-complete genome sequence for a strain of Methanobrevibacter oralis, a simple, single-celled organism that is known to thrive in “pockets” between modern humans’ gums and our teeth (often with not-so-pleasant results).

Weyrich says this is the 48,000-year-old microbial genome is the oldest ever sequenced, and it suggests that humans and Neanderthals were swapping spit as early as 120,000 years ago. The find supports the growing consensus that prehistoric hanky-panky was not uncommon between Neanderthals and ancient humans. But it also suggests that these interactions were intimate, consensual affairs.

“In order to get microorganisms swapped between people you have to be kissing,” Weyrich said.

Today, all humans except people from Africa carry a small fraction of Neanderthal DNA in their genes.

“They haven’t gone extinct, really,” Dobney said. “They’re still alive in us.”

Additional reporting by The Washington Post