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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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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
8 New Ancient Ships Found at the 'Shipwreck Capital of the World'
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The number of wrecks discovered at the "shipwreck capital of the world" continues to grow. According to Haaretz, the latest find adds eight new wreck discoveries, bringing the total up to 53 sunken ships in a 17-mile stretch off the coast of Fourni, Greece.

As Mental Floss reported, in 2015 archaeologists working off the coast of Fourni identified 22 shipwrecks dating back to 700 BCE—already an historic find. But additional dives conducted by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and the RPM Nautical Foundation have continued to yield new discoveries. Nine months later, in June 2016, the Fourni Underwater survey turned up 23 more ancient, Medieval, and post-Medieval shipwrecks in the area with the help of local fishermen and sponge divers. The latest expedition took place in June 2017.

Divers inspect and survey an ancient amphora near the shipwreck site.

The Fourni archipelago, consisting of 13 tiny islands, never hosted a sizable town, but it was an important stopping point for shipping routes between the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea, and on to Cyprus, the Levant, and Egypt. The area may have been a hotspot for ships seeking safe harbor from violent storms in that part of the Aegean Sea, as Peter Campbell of the RPM Nautical Foundation told Haaretz. It wasn’t an entirely safe destination for merchant ships, though; it was also a pirate haven.

Some of the latest wrecks found include a ship from the Greek Classical Period—around 500 BCE to 320 BCE—carrying Greek amphorae (ceramic jars), a Roman ship with origins in the Iberian Peninsula, and anchors dating back to the Archaic Period (800 to 479 BCE). Researchers found more stone, lead, and iron anchors all the way up to the Byzantine Empire, which lasted until the 15th century.

Two conservationists sit at a table working with shards of ancient pottery.

The ancient trade routes that crisscrossed the Mediterranean (and the dangers of ancient seafaring) have made the area a fertile ground for millennia-old shipwrecks even outside of Fourni. As recently as 2016, divers off the coast of Israel stumbled upon a 1600-year-old merchant ship filled with Roman artifacts. In 2015, Italian divers discovered the wreck of a 2000-year-old ship carrying terra cotta tiles in deep waters near Sardinia.

The Fourni project is still ongoing, and researchers plan to conduct a fourth season of underwater surveying in 2018. Once the project completes a full survey and documentation of the area, the researchers may consider excavating some of the wrecks.

[h/t Haaretz]

All photos by Vasilis Mentogianis courtesy the RPM Nautical Foundation

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Jersey Heritage
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Watch Conservationists Disassemble World's Largest Known Celtic Coin Hoard
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Jersey Heritage

Reg Mead and Richard Miles are proof that striking silver can be just as exciting as hitting gold—especially if the precious metal in question is a massive heap of ancient coins.

In the summer of 2012, the two amateur treasure hunters used metal detectors to discover the world’s largest-known Celtic coin hoard—now known as Catillon II—buried in a field on the Isle of Jersey in the British Channel Islands. The duo had spent more than 30 years searching for the rare stash, after a farmer’s wife (other accounts refer to her as a daughter) told them decades prior that her family had discovered silver coins while plowing a field.

Mead and Miles were granted limited access to the land, which they scoured after harvest season each year. Their persistence paid off when they finally found the treasure: nearly 70,000 Roman and Celtic coins, believed to date from around 30 to 50 BCE, along with some gold and silver jewelry, glass beads, a leather purse, and a woven silver-and-gold bag.

The Celtic coin hoard known as Catillon II
Jersey Heritage

The Celtic coin hoard known as Catillon II
Jersey Heritage

The Celtic coin hoard known as Catillon II
Jersey Heritage

The Celtic coin hoard known as Catillon II
Jersey Heritage

Long ago, members of a tribe called the Coriosolitae—who once lived in modern-day Brittany and Normandy in France—buried the wealth, presumably to hide it from the Romans.

The hoard was excavated by a team that was composed of members of local history and archaeology organizations Societe Jersiais and Jersey Heritage, along with staff from the Guernsey Museum, located on the island of Guernsey in the Channel Islands.

Removing the coin heap from the ground proved to be a challenge: "With earth still attached, it weighed over a ton," Neil Mahrer, a museum conservator with local historic trust Jersey Heritage, told Archaeology. "We had no idea how strong it was, in that it was only held together by the corrosion between the coins."

The Celtic coin hoard known as Catillon II
Jersey Heritage

The Celtic coin hoard known as Catillon II
Jersey Heritage

Once the treasure was finally unearthed, conservationists and volunteers spent around three years carefully extricating coins from the pile. The arduous project was completed in January 2017—and now, thanks to the magic of video editing, we can watch the entire process in only 30 seconds.

What happens next to the hoard is unclear. Such finds are protected by the Treasure Act.

[h/t Archaeology]

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