DNA taken from preserved dental plaque is shedding new light about modern human's closest extinct relatives, the Neanderthals. Analysis of the DNA hint of the species's diet as well as how they may have used medicinal plants to treat ailments.
By looking at the calcified dental plaque of five Neanderthal specimens ranging from 42,0000 to 50,000 years old, researchers were able to determine the Neanderthals's diet and found that these archaic humans did not eat alike.
Some Neanderthals thrived primarily on meat eating the flesh of animals such as wild sheep and the woolly rhinoceros. Some, on the other hand, are complete vegetarians, who dined on pine nuts, mushrooms and moss.
Treating Ailments With Medicinal Plants
Besides learning what the Neanderthals ate, the researchers also found that these prehistoric humans consumed plants with medicinal properties. The tooth of a Neanderthal who lived in what is now Spain suggests that prehistoric humans may have known how to self-medicate by using medicinal plants.
The individual had tooth abscess and intestinal parasite when he died. Researchers found that his dental plaque had the DNA of a tree that produces salicylic acid, a painkiller used as an active ingredient of aspirin. They also found bits of the fungus Penicillium that produces the antibiotic penicillin.
"Evidence for self-medication was detected in an El Sidrón Neanderthal with a dental abscess4 and a chronic gastrointestinal pathogen (Enterocytozoon bieneusi)," the researchers wrote in their study.
While it is possible that the Neanderthals had an idea how to use medicinal plants to treat ailments and diseases, the study, which was published in the journal Nature on March 8, is not conclusive.
Researchers said that the best way to determine if the drugs were intentionally ingested would be to find them in other Neanderthals who also have ailments.
"Could the Neanderthal have been self-medicating? We don't know," said study researcher Keith Dobney, from the University of Liverpool. "If we found it in more than a few individuals and found it in individuals with diseases and painful conditions ... then I think yes, we'd have potentially good evidence for quite sophisticated medical knowledge."
The study is not the first to find evidence suggesting Neanderthals had knowledge about the medicinal value of plants. In a 2012 study, researchers found that our extinct cousins ate bitter-tasting plants yarrow and chamomile, which have little nutritional value. Given that the Neanderthals would find the plants bitter, researchers suspected that these may have been consumed for medication.
Today, these plants are used to treat a range of ailments. Chamomile is used as herbal treatment for stress and digestive order. Yarrow, on the other hand, is used as an antiseptic and helps treat fevers and colds.
Evidence Of Sophisticated Behavior
Dobey said it is not far out that the Neanderthals would have an idea about medicine since there is growing evidence that shows they are far more advanced than they were given credit for.
"Potentially this is evidence of more sophisticated behaviour in terms of knowledge of medicinal plants," Dobey said.