Neanderthals were vegetarian– and probably kissed early humans

Neanderthals likely consumed a plant-based diet that included mushrooms and pine nuts, while also self-medicating with penicillin and a form of aspirin, according to a new analysis of dental calculus led by an international team of researchers and published in the journal Nature.

The study, led by Laura S. Weyrich from the University of Adelaide in South Australia, looked at the plaque and DNA on the enamel of two Neanderthals of Spanish origin, the Guardian and NBC News reported on Wednesday and made some startling discoveries about their lifestyles.

For one thing, the study authors discovered that, contrary to popular belief, Neanderthals had not exclusively eaten meat. Instead, they found no evidence of meat in the teeth of the specimens (an adult female and a teenage male who was not an immediate relative) at all – but, they noted, this does not mean that these individuals and the other members of their society were herbivores.

In fact, the authors said that their evidence suggests that the duo was actually eaten by cannibals, and a similar analysis of two other Neanderthals from Belgium revealed a dramatically different diet that also included wooly rhinoceros and sheep, according to Washington Post reports.

“Neanderthals, not surprisingly, are doing different things, eating different things, in different places,” study co-author Keith Dobney, a professor of human paleoecology from the University of Liverpool in the UK, told the Guardian. This dietary variation, however, was only one of the discoveries he and his colleagues made by studying the teeth of ancient Neanderthals.

Discovery of microbe suggests that humans, Neanderthals kissed

The dental calculus of these four Neanderthals, who lived between 42,000 and 50,000 years ago, was a “fantastic time capsule of biological information” which trapped “not only direct evidence of the food that goes in your mouth, but… well preserved ecosystems that have evolved with us,” Dobney explained to the Post.

Among the more intriguing findings was that the teenage man had an infected mouth and several other injuries that indicated that he was suffering from some kind of illness – one that apparently was being treated, as the researchers found two residues on his teeth that were not present in any of the other specimens. One residue was from the poplar tree, which produces salicyclic acid (the active in ingredient in aspirin) while the other was a penicillin-like fungus.

“Could the Neanderthal have been self-medicating? We don’t know,” Dobney told the Post. “If we found it in more than a few individuals and found it in individuals with diseases and painful conditions… then I think yes, we’d have potentially good evidence for quite sophisticated medical knowledge.”

Another surprise was the discovery of the near-complete genome for Methanobrevibacter oralis, a microbe known to live between the gums and teeth of modern humans, in the dental calculus of the Neanderthals. Weyrich said that this organism is the oldest of its kind to ever be sequenced, and that its existence in Neanderthals means that it had to have been spread to humans somehow – likely through kissing, which supports the growing notion that humans and Neanderthals were known to become intimate with one another on occasion.


Image credit:  Abel Grau