Toothache? Neanderthals Might Have Reached for Aspirin, Too

A study of neanderthals (our nearest extinct relatives) has found that they too used plant-based medicines to treat illness and pain.

Dental care was decidedly primitive back in the time of the Neanderthals.

The study was led by Laura Weyrich, of the Australian Center for Ancient DNA (ACAD) at the University of Adelaide.

Scientists got a sneak peek into the kitchen of three Neanderthals by scraping off the plaque stuck on their teeth and examining the DNA.

The team analysed and compared dental plaque samples from four Neanderthals found at the cave sites of Spy in Belgium and El Sidron in Spain.

The researchers pieced together the genetic sequence of a bacterium responsible for gum-disease called Methanobrevibacter oralis, not only setting a new record for the oldest reconstruction of a bacterial genome, but also showing that Neanderthals and ancient humans were sharing pathogens as recently as 180,000 years ago - long after the two groups split from their shared ancestry.

This means that the "DNA "locked-up" in plaque represents a unique window into Neanderthal lifestyle - revealing new details of what they ate, what their health was like and how the environment impacted their behavior, ' Weyrich said".

"One of the most surprising finds, however, was in a Neanderthal from El Sidron, who suffered from a dental abscess visible on the jawbone", he said.

This Neanderthal had a nasty tooth abscess, bad diarrhea and appeared to be " self-medicating", Cooper said.

In 2012, a study in the journal Naturwissenschaften said Neanderthals appeared to have used medicinal herbs such as yarrow and chamomile. The plaque also indicated a presence of a natural form of the antibiotic penicillin that was not found in the other specimens, he said.

Almost 50,000 years before the invention of penicillin, a young Neanderthal tormented by a dental abscess ate greenery containing a natural antibiotic and pain killer, analysis of his teeth revealed today.

By sequencing the DNA in the dental plaque and tartar found on Neanderthals' teeth, scientists found one Neanderthal did eat mostly wild sheep and woolly rhino along with some mushrooms, but others ate a mostly vegetarian diet, according to USA Today. This development reveals that Neanderthals had an extinctive knowledge of medicinal plants and antibiotics than we give them credit for.

"Certainly, our findings contrast markedly with the rather simplistic view of our ancient relatives in popular imagination", he added.

The finding adds to evidence that not all Neanderthals were carnivores. Meanwhile, those in the Spanish cave had no signs of meat consumption but instead had a largely vegetarian diet of items such as pine nuts, moss, mushrooms and tree bark.

The study published Thursday in the journal Nature had several surprises.

  • Carolyn Briggs