- Neanderthals may have had knowledge of medicinal plants and their properties. Dental plaque analysis provided evidence of consumption of poplar, a plant that contains the key ingredient found in modern aspirin, suggesting self-medication practices.
- Researchers discovered the presence of a natural antibiotic mold, penicillium, in the dental build-up of Neanderthals, further indicating their potential knowledge of natural remedies for health issues.
- The diet of Neanderthals varied according to their geographical location, with evidence of animal and vegetal consumption preserved in their dental plaque. This reveals a more nuanced view of our ancient relatives’ lifestyle.
In an age when dental care was less sophisticated, Neanderthals might already have had methodologies for combating toothache pain such as the use of natural pain relievers and potentially antibiotics.
Understanding Neanderthals’ Dental Care Through Plaque Analysis
A study headed by Laura Weyrich from the Australian Center for Ancient DNA (ACAD) at the University of Adelaide gives us unique insights. The scholars investigated dental plaque found in the remains of four Neanderthals that were discovered in caves in Belgium and Spain. Uniquely, these samples of dental buildup are the oldest ever genetically analyzed, with an astounding age ranging from 42,000 to 50,000 years old.
Dental Plaque as a Source of Knowledge
According to Weyrich, analyzing ancient dental plaque can unlock a treasure trove of information. She explained that dental plaque can capture microorganisms living in the mouth, pathogens from the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract, as well as bits of food trapped in the teeth, preserving their DNA for millennia. For this reason, the DNA encapsulated in plaque is considered a distinctive window into the Neanderthal lifestyle, shedding light on their diet, health, and environmental behavior.
A Surprising Insight into Neanderthal Medical Knowledge
One of the more striking findings came from the remains studies of a male Neanderthal from Spain. This individual suffered from a visible dental abscess and showed signs of an intestinal parasite that causes acute diarrhea. However, more surprising was his consumption of poplar, a plant that contains salicylic acid – the key ingredient found in modern aspirin.
Interestingly, the researchers also observed the presence of natural antibiotic mold, specifically penicillium, in this particular specimen. This observation led the researchers to suggest that Neanderthals may have been knowledgeable about medicinal plants and their anti-inflammatory and analgesic characteristics, and seem to have utilized this knowledge for self-medication.
Change in Dietary Habits Based on Geographical Location
The study also revealed that the dietary preferences of Neanderthals varied with the geographical location. Neanderthals inhabiting the Belgian cave consumed woolly rhinoceros, European wild sheep, and wild mushrooms. In contrast, Neanderthals from the Spanish cave showed a predominantly vegetarian diet, feasting on pine nuts, moss, mushrooms, and tree bark.
These findings capture a more complex view of our ancient relatives, challenging the simplistic perspectives often portrayed in popular culture.
For more information about Neanderthals, visit the the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s website.