Whether you subscribe to the theory of evolution, or creationism, a bit of both, or anything else it, is irrelevant to this article. This article does not go into these complexities as that is an entirely different subject, with lots of information, examination and factors to consider.
There is still much we don’t understand and, the connection between humans and what we refer to as our ‘ancestors’ isn’t solid enough to regard it as truth. Evolution is real, and can be seen throughout nature, but the human connection to it is still a mystery.
In a day and age where not brushing your teeth is considered not just a taboo, but a health hazard, it’s strange to think that people once lived, and even kissed, without any dental hygiene.
We know this was the case for Neanderthals, and while it may seem gross, those bits of food and microbes left in their mouths have allowed researchers to discover more about the Neanderthal diet and lifestyle.
Keith Dobney, an archaeologist at the University of Liverpool, and his colleagues have been studying Neanderthal dental plaques from the teeth of three Neanderthals living in Europe about 50,000 years ago — one individual from a cave in Spy, Belgium, and the other two from El Sidrón cave in Spain.
In their study, published in the journal Nature, researchers revealed that the Belgian individual ate mostly meat, like that of the woolly rhino and wild sheep.
“Most Neanderthals that had been analyzed [before] were really heavy meat eaters,” explains lead author Laura Weyrich, who is from the Australian Center for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide, Australia.
But to the researchers’ surprise, their study found that the Neanderthals in Spain ate no meat at all.
“We find things like pine nuts, moss, tree barks and even mushrooms as well,” notes Weyrich. “It is very indicative of a vegetarian diet, probably the true Paleo diet.”
So why such a difference? According to Weyrich, it’s a difference in environment. In Belgium, wide open spaces with grasslands had many mammals, but in Spain, the Neanderthals lived in dense forests. “It’s hard to imagine a big woolly rhino trying to wedge themselves between the trees,” says Weyrich.
“Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Neanderthals are adapting to local conditions and varying their diets,” says Chris Stringer, from the Natural History Museum in London. He mentions findings that revealed Neanderthals living on the coast of Gibraltar “were collecting molluscs and baking them.”
“They were butchering at least one seal. There [was] dolphin material at the site. That may have been stranded dolphin that they scavenged.”
The DNA in the study also revealed m0re than 200 difference species of microbes living in the mouths of these Neanderthals, which exposed potential diseases they may have had. For instance, one of the individuals in Spain was thought to have suffered from a painful tooth abscess and the stomach bug. “We saw that he also had Microsporidia, which is a gastrointestinal pathogen,” says Weyrich.
DNA in this individual’s dental plaque also revealed he was self-medicating by eating the bark of poplar trees, which contains salicylic acid — a natural source of what we call aspirin. The researchers also found Penicillium in his plaque, which is the mold that makes the antibiotic penicillin. “It’s pretty phenomenal that these guys were so in tune with their environment and to know what was going on and how to treat things,” explains Weyrich.
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Such insight provides more avenues for exploring the life and behaviour of Neanderthals and, inevitably, learning more about ourselves in the process.
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