The more we learn about Neanderthals the less they fit our old misconception of them as club carrying brutish cavemen! In fact, what is now beginning to emerge is a human species who had some degree of sophistication and wisdom. The latest proof of this claim comes from a study conducted by the University of Adelaide. This study used DNA recovered from Neanderthal dental plague that is giving us all sorts of new information about the Neanderthal diet, behavior, and evolutionary history. It is also revealing that Neanderthals used plant medicines to treat both pain and illness!
It appears Neanderthals consumed Poplar bark which is a source of aspirin and molded vegetation that included Penicillium Fungus which is a source of natural antibiotic. Results of this study were published today in the journal “Nature” by the research team and those results revealed not only the use of plant medicine by Neanderthals but also dietary differences between groups of Neanderthals and knowledge of natural medications.
From the dental plague being study we are discovering the diets of Neanderthals as well has what condition their general health was in. We are also learning how the environment impacted them. The team used four specimens ranging in age from 42-50 kya and the dental plague is the oldest ever to be genetically analyzed.
The specimen from Spy Cave in Belgium ate woolly rhinos and European wild sheep it seems and the diet also included wild mushrooms. The specimen from El Sidron Cave in Spain showed no evidence of meat consumption but appears to have had a vegetarian diet made up of pine nuts, moss, mushrooms, and tree bark. This specimen suffered from a dental abscess which is visible on the jawbone. He also apparently suffered from an intestinal parasite that causes acute diarrhea. Obviously, this individual was sick. He also ate Poplar bark which contain a pain-killer called salicylic acid which is an active ingredient in aspirin. Researches also detected antibiotic mold (penicillin) not found in the other specimens.
Neanderthals, it appears, had a good knowledge of natural medicine plants and their use of penicillin was 40,000 years before we discovered it! Further, research also reveals that Neanderthals and modern humans (H. sapiens) were swapping pathogens 180 kya which is long after the divergence between us and them according to standard theory.
Researchers also found the composition of oral bacteria in Neanderthals and modern humans correlated closely with their amount of meat consumption. It appears that Spanish Neanderthals ate less meat while Belgian Neanderthals ate large amounts of meat.
One drawback I see in this study is the very limited number of specimens (4) used in this study and based on what was found with those four individuals the team is drawing some very broad assumptions. I really don’t think four specimens is enough to make some of these broad assumptions such as Neanderthals in Spain eating less meat than those in Belgium. Obviously, the specimen from Spain was very sick and I would think it likely he had a problem perhaps with digesting meat and that is why he had a vegetarian diet. I don’t think this is evidence that Spanish Neanderthals ate less meat but it is evidence for this sick individual.
What is most interesting in this study is that the Neanderthals had knowledge and ability to use plant (herbal) medicines to treat their illnesses and pain. The researchers think Neanderthals were “self medicating” which MIGHT be the case. However, I think the more we learn about Neanderthal society we will find that they had some sort of shamans who treated pan, illness, and other infirmities. I really don’t think Neanderthals were void of some sort of social order or organization and I think the more we learn about them, the more this will be realized.
I’m absolutely elated that we are finally blowing the old Neanderthal stereotype right out of the water!!