Teeth reflect our lifestyle, for better or for worse. And since teeth are so durable, they’re being used to rewrite some of what we know about our ancient ancestors. A recent study examined tartar chipped off the teeth of Neanderthals, uncovering data on how human relatives could have lived 50,000 years ago.
Australian scientists sampled five Neanderthals preserved across several museums in Europe and used DNA sequencing to analyze food particles and bacteria preserved in the cement-like buildup on their teeth. The prevailing theory was that Neanderthals ate mostly red meat, but they turned out to have more than wooly rhinoceros stuck in their teeth. Scientists found mold that makes penicillin in a Neanderthal with gastrointestinal issues and salicylic acid (aspirin) in another suffering from severe tooth decay. It’s a possible sign of advanced self-medication.
“[Neanderthals] were very adaptable and were using very modern behaviors. We actually were able to show that they were self-medicating,” said Alan Cooper, director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA and part of the study. “It would be really funny if there were antibiotics 50,000 years before we knew it.”
The salicylic acid probably came from eating tree bark or the buds of poplar plants, Cooper said. Only more research can prove that Neanderthals were self-medicating on purpose.
Examining dental tartar is relatively new technique with enormous potential. “Getting this data is amazing and important,” said Jonathan Eisen, a microbiologist and professor at the University of California, Davis. “Imagine that there was an eighth continent and all the sudden someone goes there for the first time and reports what organisms are there. The insight it provides on Neanderthals is really novel.”
By comparing bacteria in Neanderthals’ mouths with that of modern humans, scientists saw the possibility of saliva-sharing between Neanderthals and humans during the Paleolithic Age. One of the study’s coauthors previously speculated that this could mean French-kissing between the two, but both Cooper and Eisen say that there are more practical possibilities, like food-sharing or drinking the same water (with that said, humans and Neanderthals did mate).
One of the most intriguing findings may be in our modern loss of microbial diversity. Neanderthals seemingly had a greater range of microbes in their mouths than we do today. This could support a theory that many of our modern ailments — obesity, allergies, or asthma — are related to the lack of microbes needed to protect ourselves.
“If that’s true, it’s really important to figure out what we lost — because we could restore it,” Eisen said.
So, although the word “Neanderthal” could be interpreted as an insult, it’s also indicative of a human relative perhaps far more sophisticated than we ever realized — or, in some ways, a creature more resilient than us.
Kelly Kasulis is a journalist living in Boston and the deputy digital editor of The GroundTruth Project. Follow her on Twitter @KasulisK.