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

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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.

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EEF, Black Sea MAP
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
'Ship Graveyard' Discovered in the Black Sea Provides New Insights into Maritime History
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Rendering of a Roman ship hull by Black Sea MAP researchers.
EEF, Black Sea MAP

In 2015, to learn how prehistoric humans dealt with the coastal impact of climate change, an international team of researchers in Bulgaria embarked on a multiyear geophysical survey of the Black Sea. Little did they know that the undertaking would morph into what's been dubbed "one of the largest maritime archaeological projects ever staged": As IFLScience reports, the team ended up discovering dozen of shipwrecks, dating from the 19th century all the way back to the 5th century BCE.

News of the "ship graveyard," as researchers have taken to calling it, was first announced in 2016. Following three field seasons, marine scientists have just returned from their final trip with recovered artifacts and new insights about ancient ship design and trade patterns.

Scientists from the Black Sea Maritime Project (Black Sea MAP), conducted by the University of Southampton's Center for Maritime Archaeology, used a host of high-tech equipment to survey the Black Sea's floor and take pictures. In all, they located around 60 ships spanning 2500 years of history.

The vessels were in remarkable condition, considering their age. The Black Sea is uniquely suited for preserving organic materials, as it contains two separate layers of water: a top layer that contains oxygen and salt, and a second salty layer with little oxygen or light. Organisms that eat organic matter can't survive in this environment, which is why the site's ships stayed relatively intact.

According to National Geographic, researchers were still able to make out the chisel and tool marks on planks, along with carved decorations. They also saw rigging materials, rope coils, tills, rudders, standing masts, and cargo.

Ships were discovered from the Classical, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman periods, with the oldest dating back to the 4th or 5th century BCE. One particularly exciting find was an ornately carved Ottoman ship, which researchers nicknamed Flower of the Black Sea due to its floral deck carvings. Meanwhile, a potentially Venetian ship from the 13th or 14th century provided scientists with a first-ever glimpse of the ships that were the precursors to those used during the Age of Exploration.

"That's never been seen archaeologically," expedition member Rodrigo Pacheco-Ruiz told The New York Times in 2016. "We couldn't believe our eyes."

To reconstruct how these vessels once looked, researchers used 3D software to combine thousands of still photos shot from different angles. This photogrammetric method allowed them to create digital models of the vessels and identify historical features that were once a mystery to archaeologists.

"There's one medieval trading vessel where the towers on the bow and stern are pretty much still there," said Ed Parker, CEO of Black Sea MAP, according to IFLScience. "It's as if you are looking at a ship in a movie, with ropes still on the deck and carvings in the wood."

A 3D recreation of a Roman galley discovered by an international team of researchers in the Black Sea.
A 3D rendering of a Roman galley, created by Black Sea MAP project researchers.
EEF, Black Sea MAP

Photogrammetric model of a wreck from the Medieval period, created by Black Sea MAP researchers.
Photogrammetric model of a wreck from the Medieval period, created by Black Sea MAP researchers.
EEF, Black Sea MAP

Photogrammetric model of the stern of an Ottoman wreck, created by Black Sea MAP researchers.
Photogrammetric model of the stern of an Ottoman wreck, created by Black Sea MAP researchers.
EEF, Black Sea Map

A Roman shipwreck discovered by an international team of researchers in the Black Sea.
Divers with the Black Sea MAP project examining the Roman galley.
EEF, Black Sea MAP

Scientists say the ship graveyard will help them learn more about ancient trade routes, and how various Black Sea coastal communities were connected. That said, they're still committed to their initial goal of investigating ancient changes in the region's environment, using sedimentary core samples and other methods to learn more about the impact of sea level change after the last glacial cycle.

"Our primary aims are focused on the later prehistory of the region and in particular on human response to major environmental change," said Jon Adams, the project's chief investigator and a founding director of the University of Southampton's Centre for Maritime Archaeology, in a news statement. "We believe we now have an unparalleled archive of data with which to address these big questions about the human past."

[h/t IFLScience]

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Found: A Sunken German World War I-Era Submarine
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SMU Central University Libraries, Flickr/Public Domain

During World War I, one of Germany's most formidable weapons was the U-boat, an advanced military submarine with torpedoes that sank countless Allied merchant and cargo ships. But while deadly, these submersibles weren't invincible, as evidenced by the recent discovery of a sunken German U-boat in the North Sea.

As ABC News reports, researchers located the UB II-type dive boat—a smaller submarine that typically plagued coastal waters—off the coast of Belgium, around 82 to 98 feet below the North Sea. The 88-foot vessel appears to have struck a mine with its upper deck, judging by damage suffered to its front.

The submarine is remarkably intact. Two of its torpedo tubes were destroyed, but one of them is still in good condition. The ship itself remained sealed, and may serve as a watery grave for up to 23 crew members.

The U-boat's final resting place hasn't been announced, as to prevent looting or damage, according to the BBC. Meanwhile, Belgian officials have contacted the German ambassador to see how they should proceed with any potential remains.

This isn't the first time a World War I-era U-boat has been found in Belgian waters. Experts have catalogued 11 such discoveries so far, but this one is reported to be the best preserved. The Chicago Tribune reports that since 18 U-boats were stationed in Bruges between 1915 and 1918, and 13 of them were destroyed, there might be even more of these kinds of finds to come.

[h/t ABC News]

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