Antibiotics, Pain Meds, and a Vegetarian Diet Found in Neanderthal Teeth

The upper jaw of a Neanderthal found at El Sidrón, Spain, with dental plaque. Image Credit: Paleoanthropology Group MNCN-CSIC

As any dental hygienist will warn you, plaque is durable stuff. It traps bits of food, bacteria, and pathogens on your teeth, and if you don’t brush or floss regularly, it sticks there—for good.

That might be bad news for you, but it’s good news for archaeologists. Fossilized plaque, also known as dental calculus, has been found on corpses that are tens of thousands of years old. Now that scientists have the tools to analyze old plaque for pieces of ancient DNA, they can reconstruct the diet, health, and lifestyle of the dead.

One team recently looked at the fossilized plaque on the teeth of four Neanderthals found at two cave sites: Spy in Belgium and El Sidrón in Spain. As our closest known relatives, Neanderthals had a lot in common with modern humans before they went extinct. They built tools and lit campfires. They may have decorated their bodies and buried their dead. And, according to a new study published today in Nature, they took medicine for pain and natural antibiotics for infections, and at least some of them had a plant-heavy diet.

At 42,000 to 50,000 years old, these samples represent the oldest dental plaque ever to be genetically analyzed. One of the individuals found at El Sidrón suffered from a dental abscess visible on the jawbone. He also had an intestinal parasite. That may be why he was consuming poplar—which contains pain-killing salicylic acid, the active ingredient of aspirin—as well as a natural antibiotic mold, Penicillium. Previous research had shown that Sidrón Neanderthals may have used yarrow, an astringent, and camomile, a natural anti-inflammatory, as medicinal plants.

“Apparently, Neanderthals possessed a good knowledge of medicinal plants and their various anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, and seem to be self-medicating,” Alan Cooper, director of the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD), said in a statement. “The use of antibiotics would be very surprising, as this is more than 40,000 years before we developed penicillin. Certainly our findings contrast markedly with the rather simplistic view of our ancient relatives in popular imagination.”

Archaeologists working in El Sidrón's Tunnel of Bones cave, where 12 Neanderthal specimens dating around 49,000 years ago have been recovered. Image Credit: Antonio Rosas, Paleoanthropology Group MNCN-CSIC

In addition to new insights on the medical regimen of Neanderthals, the study revealed regional differences in Neanderthal eating habits. As ACAD research fellow and lead author Laura Weyrich and her colleagues found, the menu at El Sidrón consisted largely of plant-based foods, like mushrooms, pine nuts, and moss. Meanwhile, at Spy cave, Neanderthals ate a lot of meat, including woolly rhinoceros and wild sheep.

This difference in diet also seemed linked to a difference in oral bacteria between these two Neanderthal populations, which implies that meat consumption contributed to changes within the microbiome for Neanderthals.

"The differences in the oral microbiome are important, because they tell us something about how the human microbiome began to change," Weyrich tells mental_floss. "We know today that historic changes in the human microbiome have likely resulted in the issues we now have with modern human health and altered microbiomes. We need to understand these changes in the past in order to understand how we obtained the bacteria that we now have with us today."

Christina Warinner, an expert on ancient DNA at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, tells mental_floss that the most important aspect of the study is the recovery of ancient microbial DNA.

“This provides our first direct evidence of oral microbial ecology in an archaic human,” says Warinner, who wasn't involved in the new study. Indeed, the researchers were able to reconstruct nearly the complete genome of the mouth-dwelling microbe they found, Methanobrevibacter oralis. At 48,000 years old, it is the oldest draft microbial genome created to date.

Warinner says she has consistently found members of this genus to be more common in the past than today. Hundreds of thousands of microbes live in or on the human body, and scientists are just starting to understand how these organisms affect everything from mood to allergies. Warinner suspects Methanobrevibacter microbes once played a much larger role in the human oral ecosystem than they do today, but scientists know little about the past and present function of these organisms.

“It is an important reminder of how we've really just scratched the surface of the human microbiome, and how much work there is to do to understand the evolution and ecology of this fundamental part of our human biology,” Warinner says.

Peter Pfälzner, University of Tübingen
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Finally Identify a 4000-Year-Old Lost City in Iraq
Peter Pfälzner, University of Tübingen
Peter Pfälzner, University of Tübingen

In 2016, archaeologists excavating in the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan in Iraq discovered the remnants of a Bronze Age city near the modern village of Bassetki. It was large, and it appeared to have been occupied for more than 1000 years, from around 2200 to 1200 BCE. Ancient Mesopotamia, home to the earliest civilizations on Earth, had many cities. So which one was it?

The mystery remained until recently, when a language expert at the University of Heidelberg translated clay cuneiform tablets unearthed at the site in 2017. The archaeologists had discovered Mardaman, a once-important city mentioned in ancient texts, which had been thought lost to time.

The inscriptions were likely written around 1250 BCE when Mardaman (also called Mardama) was a part of the Assyrian Empire. According to the University of Tübingen archaeologists who unearthed the tablets, they describe the "administrative and commercial affairs" between the citizens of Mardaman and their Assyrian governor Assur-nasir. The account led the researchers to believe that the area where the tablets were recovered was once the governor's palace.

Excavation site in Iraq.
Peter Pfälzner, University of Tübingen

Situated on trade routes connecting Mesopotamia, Anatolia (modern Turkey), and Syria, Mardaman was a bustling commercial hub in its day. It was conquered and rebuilt several times, but after it was toppled by the Turukkaeans from the neighboring Zagros Mountains sometime in the 18th century BCE, it was never mentioned again in ancient texts. Experts had assumed that marked the end of Marmadan. This latest discovery shows that the city recovered from that dark period, and still existed 500 years later.

"The cuneiform texts and our findings from the excavations in Bassetki now make it clear that that was not the end," lead archeologist Peter Pfälzner said in a press statement. "The city existed continuously and achieved a final significance as a Middle Assyrian governor's seat between 1250 and 1200 BCE."

This lost chapter of history may never have been uncovered if the clay tablets were stored any other way. Archeologists found the 92 slabs in a pottery vessel that had been sealed with a thick layer of clay, perhaps to preserve the contents for future generations. The state in which they were found suggests they were stashed away shortly after the surrounding building was destroyed.

Ben Curtis, AFP/Getty Images
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
King Tut's Tomb Doesn't Contain Hidden Rooms After All
Ben Curtis, AFP/Getty Images
Ben Curtis, AFP/Getty Images

When Howard Carter first entered King Tut's tomb in 1922, there was a lot to uncover. Unlike most royal tombs of the ancient Egyptian kings, Tut's had remained sealed and untouched for centuries, providing a pristine treasure trove for those who would eventually stumble upon it. Now, nearly a century later, archaeologists are accepting the idea that King Tut's tomb may have no more secrets left to reveal: New radar scans show that there are no hidden rooms beyond the main burial chamber, NBC News reports.

The theory that Tut's tomb contains secret rooms first emerged in 2015. British archaeologist Nicholas Reeves claimed that high-definition laser scans conducted by Japanese and American scientists hinted at the existence of a second tomb on the other side of the chamber's walls, and that the hidden tomb possibly belonged to Queen Nefertiti, Tutankhamun's stepmother. The theory sparked excitement in Egyptology circles, but its popularity was short-lived. Radar experts cast doubts on the research saying that what appeared to be a wall or a room could easily be a geologic feature. Archaeologists and Egyptologists began calling for more evidence.

The newest study on the matter will likely debunk the hidden tomb theory for good. According to findings by Italian researchers presented at the fourth International Tutankhamun Conference in Cairo, ground-penetrating radar shows conclusively that there are no hidden rooms or corridors adjacent to Tut's tomb. The new scan represents the most comprehensive radar survey of the area ever conducted.

Even without hidden rooms, Tut's tomb and the artifacts it contained make up one of the world's most impressive archaeological sites. The public will be able to view 4500 of the young ruler's possessions when they go on display at a new museum in Cairo in 2022.

[h/t NBC News]


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