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Laura Weyrich, a paleomicrobiologist at the University of Adelaide in Australia, and colleagues cleaned off the hardened plaque from the teeth of five Neanderthals found in Belgium and Spain and one from Italy. The samples are dated from 42,000 to 50,000 years ago. They popped off bits of ancient dental plaque, then sequenced the DNA contained within, to see if it matched up to any known sequences today.

What they found, published in the journal Nature, suggests that the northern Belgian Neanderthals ate a meat-heavy diet: including woolly rhino and wild sheep. Whereas their southern Spanish counterparts ate that forest-foraged vegetarian fare: mushrooms, pine nuts and moss. The Italian specimen failed to provide results.

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The jaw of a Neanderthal found in Belgium, which provided genetic clues to ancient diets via tooth buildup. PHOTOGRAPH BY ROYAL BELGIAN INSTITUTE OF NATURE SCIENCES

The most interesting find, in my opinion is that Spanish Neanderthal from El Sidrón was suffering from a dental abscess, possibly caused by a subspecies of the bacterium Methanobrevibacter oralis. Poplar found in the sample likely provided salicylic acid—the active ingredient in aspirin… Pain relief.

This individual was also likely dealing with Enterocytozoon bieneusi, which caused a bacterial gastroenteritis. Genetic material from Penicillium rubens was found on plant matter in this Neanderthal’s teeth. The El Sidrón Neanderthal may even have turned to antibiotic-producing molds for treatment

It appears the Neanderthals had a good knowledge of medicinal plants and how these might relieve the pain of toothache or stomach ache. They might also have used antibiotics, long before the medicines were developed in modern times. These two findings suggests that Neanderthals in Spain were taking medicine when they were sick — a pretty advanced behavior.

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Skeletal remains from one of the Belgian Neanderthals. PHOTOGRAPH BY ROYAL BELGIAN INSTITUTE OF NATURE SCIENCES

Lastly, the researchers also examined Methanobrevibacter oralis; a bacteria that lived in the mouths of Neanderthals to see how microbial flora has changed over time. In the process, they reconstructed the oldest microbial genome yet sequenced – a bacteria associated with gum disease that is 48,000 years old. And by comparing this ancient bacterium, as well as the other Neanderthal bacteria, with today’s humans, they discovered that the collection of bacteria in the mouths of ancient populations seems to be linked to the amount of meat in the diet. Analysis of versions of this microbe found in Neanderthals and modern humans suggests that both lineages were exchanging Methanobrevibacter oralis as late as roughly 126,000 years ago. Weyrich, comments,

“They may have been kissing to share this oral microorganism…”

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