Cavemen's painkillers came from, among other things, mushrooms
The astonishing findings show our ancient ancestors used plants to relieve toothache and stomach bugs before the discovery of aspirin or penicillin.
Ancient DNA found in the dental plaque of Neanderthals – our nearest extinct relative – has provided remarkable new insights into their behaviour, diet and evolutionary history, including their use of plant-based medicine to treat pain and illness.
An international team, whose findings were published in the journal Nature, analysed plaque samples from four Neanderthals found at the cave sites of Spy in Belgium and El Sidron in Spain.
The four samples range from 42,000 to around 50,000 years old, and are the oldest dental plaque ever to be genetically analysed.
We found that the Neanderthals from Spy Cave consumed woolly rhinoceros and European wild sheep, supplemented with wild mushrooms
Lead author Doctor Laura Weyrich, of the University of Adelaide in Australia, said: "Dental plaque traps microorganisms that lived in the mouth and pathogens found in the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract, as well as bits of food stuck in the teeth – preserving the DNA for thousands of years.
"Genetic analysis of that 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 behaviour."
Professor Alan Cooper said: "We found that the Neanderthals from Spy Cave consumed woolly rhinoceros and European wild sheep, supplemented with wild mushrooms.
"Those from El Sidron Cave on the other hand showed no evidence for meat consumption, but appeared instead to have a largely vegetarian diet, comprising pine nuts, moss, mushrooms and tree bark – showing quite different lifestyles between the two groups."
The cavemen from El Sidron Cave appeared to have a largely vegetarian diet, for example pine nuts
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One of the most surprising finds, however, was in a Neanderthal from El Sidron, who suffered from a dental abscess visible on the jawbone.
"The plaque showed that he also had an intestinal parasite that causes acute diarrhoea, so clearly he was quite sick.
"He was eating poplar, which contains the pain killer salicylic acid – the active ingredient of aspirin, and we could also detect a natural antibiotic mould, Penicillium, not seen in the other specimens.
"Apparently, Neanderthals possessed a good knowledge of medicinal plants and their various anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, and seem to be self-medicating.
Neanderthals possessed a good knowledge of medicinal plants
"The use of antibiotics would be very surprising, as this is more than 40,000 years before we developed penicillin.
"Certainly our findings contrast markedly with the rather simplistic view of our ancient relatives in popular imagination."
He said Neanderthals, ancient and modern humans also shared several disease-causing microbes, including the bacteria that cause dental cavities and gum disease.
The Neanderthal plaque allowed reconstruction of the oldest microbial genome yet sequenced.
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The researchers said the genome sequence suggests Neanderthals and humans were swapping pathogens as recently as 180,000 years ago – long after the divergence of the two species.
Professor Keith Dobney, of Liverpool University, said: "Not only can we now access direct evidence of what our ancestors were eating, but differences in diet and lifestyle also seem to be reflected in the commensal bacteria that lived in the mouths of both Neanderthals and modern humans."
Major changes in what we eat have, however, significantly altered the balance of these microbial communities over thousands of years, which in turn continue to have fundamental consequences for our own health and well-being.
"This extraordinary window on the past is providing us with new ways to explore and understand our evolutionary history through the microorganisms that lived in us and with us."
It was found that neanderthals from Spy Cave consumed woolly rhinoceros and European wild sheep
Antonio Rosas, who works in Spain's National Natural Science Museum, added: "We were surprised not to find any remains of meat in the Asturias Neanderthals, given that they were thought to be predominantly meat eaters.
"However, we have found evidence they enjoyed a varied diet including a wide range of plants. What's more, some of these plants may well have been cooked before being eaten.
"We have evidence that this Neanderthal self-medicated. We have discovered that the plaque preserved in his teeth contains sequences of the pathogen Enterocytozoon bieneusi which causes gastrointestinal problems, including serious diarrhoea.
"Additionally, thanks to a hole in his jaw we know he had a dental abscess. Both health issues must have caused him intense pain."