Neanderthal tooth plaque sheds light on ancient diets, medication, and love

Tooth plaque recovered from the remains of five Neanderthals has shed light on ancient diets and self-medication attempts. The remains were recovered from the El Sidron Cave in Spain; their tooth plaque was compared to the tooth plaque recovered from Neanderthal remains previously found in Belgium. While the Neanderthals in Belgium apparently had meat-heavy diets, the Neanderthals in Spain consumed a lot of plants and mushrooms.

The tooth plaque was studied via DNA analysis, which revealed that the El Sidron Neanderthals likely spent a lot of time foraging for and consuming plants and also eating mushrooms. This is in contrast to the Spy Cave Neanderthals who likewise consumed mushrooms, but also meat from wild sheep and woolly rhinos.

That's not to say that the Spain-based Neanderthals didn't eat meat, though, because all signs (via past studies) point toward them having done so. However, this latest analysis may help shed light on the typical diets of this particular collective of Neanderthals during their particular years on Earth.

As well, the analysis reveals probable attempts at self-medicating among Neanderthals using plant materials. In particular, Neanderthals were found to have used Penicillium mold and tree materials containing an aspirin-like compound to treat ailments, possibly an abscessed tooth and/or stomach issues.

Also of interest is the reconstruction of Neanderthals' oral microbiomes; this has revealed a shared microbe between Neanderthals and now-modern humans, indicating that, to put it crudely, spit was swapped between humans and Neanderthals tens of thousands of years ago.

Such a revelation indicates that, at the very least, humans dined with Neanderthals and shared foods in such ways that allowed the transfer of saliva. In all likelihood, this revelation also indicates that Neanderthals and humans kissed, indicating a possibly more intimate nature to some of these relationships than previously assumed.

SOURCE: Nature