The daily life of a Neanderthal revealed through the gunk in their teeth

The typical vision of Neanderthals was not particularly flattering, often involving a giant club and spear and unfortunate sartorial choices. For years, researchers have worked to overturn this view, albeit with limited evidence.

But new research, published today in Nature, provides some of the first nuanced, detailed insights into the daily lives of Neanderthals.

By sequencing ancient DNA in preserved dental plaque (tartar), we have uncovered specific information about the diet and health of Neanderthals, as well as further insights into their interactions, behavior, culture and knowledge.

Tartar preserves old DNA from microorganisms, viruses, food and other biological material that passes through an individual’s mouth. This leaves a source of information that can be discovered by ancient DNA scientists thousands of years later.

The Neanderthal diet and lifestyle

We examined two Neanderthals from El Sidron Cave, Spain, and one Neanderthal from Spy Cave in Belgium. We found drastic differences in their diets that correlated with changes in their microbiome.

The Spy Neanderthal fit the stereotype of a carnivorous big game hunter, with DNA from woolly rhinos and wild mouflon sheep, as well as native mushrooms still eaten in Europe today.

This is the first time specific species have been identified in the Neanderthal diet, and is consistent with previous archaeological studies of this individual.

In stark contrast, the two El Sidron Neanderthals showed no signs of meat in their diet. They consumed pine nuts, moss, tree bark, various mushrooms and other (probably moldy) herbaceous material.

These were truly paleo diets, consuming what could be harvested and identified in their local environment. The Spy Cave in Belgium, for example, was on the edge of a steppe-like environment of grassy hills and plains, populated with megafauna such as woolly rhinos. In contrast, the Neanderthals of El Sidron lived in a dense mountain forest, where pine nuts and mushrooms would have been an important food source.

Neanderthal food as medicine

The skeleton of a young male Spanish Neanderthal showed an ugly tooth abscess. His tartar also contained DNA from a serious gastrointestinal parasite (Microsporidia). As a result, it is likely that he was chronically ill.

Surprisingly, our dietary analysis revealed that this Neanderthal likely treated his illnesses with natural remedies. He had DNA from poplar (whose buds and bark are a natural source of aspirin) and, surprisingly, the fungus Penicilliumthe source of the world’s first antibiotic, penicillin.

Although Penicillium mold is common in the environment, it had clearly eaten decaying vegetation that contained several other fungi. We did not see this in other Neanderthals, which raised the question of whether Neanderthals used antibiotics.

This research suggests that Neanderthals retained an extensive knowledge of treatments for ailments, and as such significantly changes our view of their culture and behavior.

It also shows how ancient bacteria on teeth are now giving us completely new insight into the behavior of ancient hominids and the origins of our own microbiome.

Intersecting encounters with people

The greatest insight into Neanderthal lifestyles gained in recent years has come from research into the Neanderthal genome. This has shown that small parts of it survive in all non-African human populations.

This has finally confirmed that humans and Neanderthals interbred.

But the specific interaction between humans and Neanderthals has remained unknown, along with the implications for how and if this might involve disease transmission.

We were able to investigate these interactions using the microorganisms preserved in ancient Neanderthal dental calculus. We have managed to sequence a 48,000-year-old bacterial genome, the oldest to date, and show that Neanderthals and humans diverged about 120,000 years ago.

This is long after humans and Neanderthals are thought to have diverged, about 450,000 to 700,000 years ago.

In modern humans, oral bacteria are typically exchanged through direct sharing of food or intimate contact, so this suggests at least some very close interactions between the two species long after they diverged.

The exchange of saliva may also have resulted in the transmission of a wide range of healthy, beneficial microorganisms or even nasty pathogens.

While we know that humans acquired several important immune genes from Neanderthals, it is also possible that humans acquired a wide range of healthy, protective microorganisms, which gave ancient humans an advantage when they moved into the Neanderthal-inhabited areas of Europe pulled.

We know that these beneficial microorganisms are critical to human health. Changes in our diverse microbial communities can result in a wide range of diseases, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, autoimmune diseases, etc.

While we don’t know how these interactions might have changed the health of Neanderthals or modern humans, our research reveals a new way to investigate this and better understand the origins of our own microbiomes.The conversation

Alan Cooper, Director, Australian Center for Ancient DNA, University of Adelaide and Laura S. Weyrich, postdoctoral research associate at ARC, University of Adelaide

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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