Dental Calculus Reveals Neanderthal Menu

Mandible of the Neanderthal individual Spy II. The DNA in the calculus shows that the woolly rhinoceros was on the menu. The bacterial composition is similar to that in carnivores. (Photo: RBINS)
08/03/2017
Dental Calculus Reveals Neanderthal Menu
post by
Reinout Verbeke

Neanderthals from the Belgian Spy cave mostly ate meat, like woolly rhinoceros. Their family members in northern Spain, however, were vegetarians. Researchers discovered these varying eating habits by analyzing DNA in dental calculus.

Australian scientists analyzed the DNA in the hardened dental plaque of four Neanderthal fossils. Two of them, from the Spy cave (near Namur), are part of the collection of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. From the genetic analysis, the researchers deducted what our Neanderthal ‘cousins’ ate and which bacteria were present in their mouths, more than 40.000 years ago.

The Spy Neanderthals were real carnivores. They ate woolly rhinoceros, for example, but also mushrooms. The two Neanderthals from El Sidrón (northern Spain), in contrast, were fully vegetarian. On their menu: pine nuts, moss, bark and mushrooms.

The scientists gathered this information from the bacterial species in the dental calculus. The bacterial composition in the Spy Neanderthals resembled this of other carnivores, like early hunter-gatherers, modern humans and the first farmers. The composition in the Spanish Neanderthals was similar to chimpanzees and African gatherers from the ‘Later Stone Age’.

Painkiller

The study concluded that a Neanderthal from El Sidrón had used medication. He was suffering from a dental abscess, and his dental plaque also contained traces of an intestinal parasite that must have caused acute diarrhoea. He ate poplar bark, which contains the natural painkiller salicylic acid (an active metabolite of aspirin), and a natural antibiotic, the Penicillium fungus, which was not found in other species. If further research would indicate that they used antibiotics, this means they did it 40.000 years before the development of penicillin. Either way, Neanderthals had a good knowledge of plants and their anti-inflammatory and sedative properties. They were not the primitive savages they are often depicted as in popular culture.

The scientists, who published their findings in Nature this week, also reconstructed the oldest bacterial genome from the dental calculus: that of Methanobrevibacter oralis, which possibly causes gingivitis.

Spy collection

The Spy Neanderthals, three skeletons that were discovered in 1886 and have been in the collections of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences ever since, are between 42.500 and 40.000 years old. That makes them the youngest European Neanderthals. ‘It is fantastic that these fossils still provide information, 130 years after their discovery, thanks to new techniques and methods’, curator Patrick Semal (RBINS) says. ‘This way, we can reconstruct the lives of our extinct relatives in more and more detail.’

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