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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.

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Guy de la Bedoyere, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Unearth the Victims of a Mysterious Massacre 400 Years Ago on an Australian Island
Beacon Island
Beacon Island
Guy de la Bedoyere, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The cargo ship Batavia set out from the Netherlands in October 1628, bound for the Dutch colony at present-day Jakarta, Indonesia, with more than 300 crew and passengers. For some still-unknown reason, the ship veered off course to the south and smashed into a coral atoll about 50 miles west of the Australian coast.

What happened over the next few months—culminating in a mysterious and brutal massacre that left at least 125 people dead—is Australia's oldest cold case.

In a story that aired on 60 Minutes Australia, correspondent Liam Bartlett traveled to this "island of horror" where a team of Australian and Dutch scientists is uncovering the nearly 400-year-old skeletons, well preserved in the sand of what is now Beacon Island. They hope to discover what led to the sudden mass slaughter of adults and children.

"We're dealing with a psychopath and some pretty horrible events," Alistair Paterson, an archaeologist at the University of Western Australia and the leader of the research team, tells Bartlett. "There's nothing like it in Dutch history or Australian history."

A screenshot of the Beacon Island dig site from 60 Minutes Australia
A scene from the 60 Minutes Australia report
Kat Long

The Batavia, the flagship of the Dutch East India Company, was on its maiden voyage. The commander, Francisco Pelsaert, and the captain, Ariaen Jacobsz, detested each other. Jacobsz conspired with Pelsaert's deputy, Jeronimus Cornelisz, to take control of the ship and its load of silver and valuable paintings. But before the mutiny could unfold, the ship crashed into the reef in the early morning of June 4, 1629.

About 100 people died in the wreck, while almost 200 made it to a cluster of islands in the Abrolhos chain—treeless, desert-like stretches of sand without water or food. Pelsaert and Jacobsz sailed for help, hoping to reach their original destination nearly 2000 miles away by boat.

The events of the next three months continue to puzzle and horrify modern researchers. Initially, Jeronimus Cornelisz organized food rations and shelter for the survivors on Beacon Island as a way to cement his leadership. But then, he hoarded the weapons and boats for his own use. He ordered his followers to execute the strong, able-bodied men who could pose a threat to his control over the group. Most of the women and children who would be a drain on supplies were also killed, though some women were kept alive as sexual slaves, Bartlett reports.

"Totally Lord of the Flies," Paterson says.

The Batavia massacre
An image from Pelsaert's journal of the voyage
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Cornelisz marooned several men on a nearby island to get them out of the way as the killing rampage continued. But those men, led by a sailor named Wiebbe Hayes, managed to find water and food, and made a primitive protective fort of stone slabs—which still exists as the first European-made structure on Australian soil. In early August, two months after the wreck, Cornelisz and his men attempted to storm Hayes' stronghold and eliminate his band of survivors.

At the last moment, a rescue ship helmed by Pelsaert and Jacobsz appeared on the horizon. Both Hayes and Cornelisz sent out boats to intercept the ship, hoping to establish their version of events as fact and save themselves from punishment. Fortunately, Hayes's men reached the ship first.

Only 80 to 90 survivors out of the Batavia's 300-plus passengers eventually arrived in present-day Jakarta. Cornelisz, who never showed a hint of remorse or offered an explanation for his brutality, was hanged along with his co-conspirators. The bones of his victims, preserved in the island's alkali coral sand for almost four centuries, are now revealing clues to the historical mystery. 

"Horrible things happened to these individuals. They clearly were victims," Paterson tells Bartlett. "But the archaeology allows us to get their story told." 

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Find Traces of What Could Be the Oldest Wine in the World
iStock
iStock

Humankind has enjoyed wine for a long time—since the early Neolithic period, at least, judging from ancient residue on prehistoric pottery shards excavated from two sites in Georgia, in the South Caucasus. The fragments potentially date back to 6000 BCE, pushing back the earliest evidence of winemaking by about 600 to 1000 years, as The New York Times reports.

Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the findings pinpoint Georgia as one of the very first—if not the first—nations to have mastered winemaking. Before, Iran held the honor, although China can still lay claim to the world's oldest fermented beverage (a cocktail-like concoction of rice, honey, hawthorn fruit, and wild grapes that was enjoyed as early as 7000 BCE).

Leading the PNAS study was Patrick McGovern, a molecular archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. He and his team excavated the remains of two Neolithic villages, located around 30 miles south of Georgia's capital city, Tbilisi. There, they found shards of clay jars—the likely remnants of large, rotund vats, which once could have accommodated as many as 400 bottles worth of today's wine.

Remains of ancient Georgian pottery vessels that may have once contained wine, photographed by Mindia Jalabadze.
(A) Representative early Neolithic jar from Khramis Didi-Gora (B) Jar base (C) Jar base (D) Jar base, interior
Mindia Jalabadze, courtesy of the National Museum of Georgia

These shards were collected for chemical analysis. Eight of them ended up containing tartaric, malic, succinic, and citric acids, all of which had leached into the clay long ago. The combination of these four acids is believed to be present only in grape wine. Researchers also noted traces of ancient grape pollen, starch from grape wine, and signs of prehistoric fruit flies.

Of course, there is the off chance that the jars might have been used to just make grape juice, but their decorations indicate that they weren't made to hold ordinary drinks, researchers argue.

Archaeological evidence dating back to the Bronze Age shows that Georgians have always held wine in great importance. But some experts thought this love of vino dated back even further—and now they believe they have pretty convincing proof.

[h/t The New York Times]

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