Gunk Between Neanderthal Teeth Reveals Diet of Wooly Rhino, Mushrooms - and Suggests They Were Kissing Humans
Ancient DNA from dental plaque is revealing intriguing new information about Neanderthals including specific menu items in their diet like woolly rhinoceros and wild mushrooms as well as their use of plant-based medicine to cope with pain and illness.
Scientists said they genetically analysed plaque from 48,000-year-old Neanderthal remains from Spain and 36,000-year-old remains from Belgium. The plaque, material that forms on and between teeth, contained food particles as well as microbes from the mouth as well as respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts.
The researchers found that an adolescent male from the Spanish site had a painful dental abscess and an intestinal parasite that causes severe diarrhoea. The plaque DNA showed he had consumed poplar bark, containing the pain-killing active ingredient of aspirin, and a natural antibiotic mould.
The Spy Neanderthal fit the stereotype of a carnivorous, big game hunter, with DNA from woolly rhinoceros 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 match previous archaeological studies of this individual.
In stark contrast, the two El Sidron Neanderthals showed no evidence of meat in their diet. They were consuming pine nuts, moss, tree bark, diverse mushrooms and other (likely mouldy) herbaceous material.
These truly were paleo diets, consuming what could be foraged and identified in their local environment. For example, Spy cave in Belgium was on the edge of a steppe-like environment of grassy hills and plains, populated with megafauna such as woolly rhinos. In contrast, the El Sidron Neanderthals lived in a dense mountain forest, where pine nuts and mushrooms would have been a major food source.
Scientists say Neanderthals were intelligent, with complex hunting methods, probable use of spoken language and symbolic objects, and sophisticated fire usage.
Weyrich says this is the 48,000-year-old microbial genome is the oldest ever sequenced, and it suggests that humans and Neanderthals were swapping spit as early as 120,000 years ago. The find supports the growing consensus that prehistoric hanky-panky was not uncommon between Neanderthals and ancient humans. But it also suggests that these interactions were intimate, consensual affairs.