Self-Medicating Neanderthals: How Their Tartar Reveals All

neanderthals dental tartar

You wouldn’t be the only one if you thought Neanderthals were completely primitive. Turns out they’re more like us than we thought…

Thanks to samples of Neanderthals tartar we know more about them than ever. Analysis of teeth of Spanish Neanderthals shows a diet of pine nuts, mushrooms and moss and indicates possible self-medication for pain and diarrhea.

neanderthals dental tartar

The common idea that Neanderthals are simplistic brutes is now being challenged. A diet consisting of plants as well as the possible use of naturally occurring painkillers to ease toothache and other ailments could prove this ideology wrong. All thanks to their tartar build up!

The team who made the findings analysed ancient DNA, from microbes and food debris, preserved in the dental tartar, or calculus, of three Neanderthals dating from 42,000 to 50,000 years ago.

While some Neanderthals in the studied group did eat meat, the presence of self-medication speaks volumes.

neanderthals dental tartar

One of the individuals studied appeared to have had a painful dental abscess. As well as evidence of a parasite known to cause diarrhoea in humans. The dental tartar of this Neanderthal showed the presence of the active ingredient of aspirin, salicylic acid, and a species of penicillium fungus. It’s also previously been proven that this extinct human species cooked vegetables. They also consumed bitter-tasting medicinal plants such as chamomile and yarrow. This suggests the Neanderthal might have benefited from a natural source of antibiotics.

Keith Dobney, a bioarchaeologist and co-author of the research from the University of Liverpool, said:

neanderthals dental tartar

“Potentially this is evidence of more sophisticated behaviour in terms of knowledge of medicinal plants. The idea that Neanderthals were a bit simple and just dragging their knuckles around is one that has gone a long time ago, certainly in the anthropological world.”

Dobney believes that approaching more studies like this one could bring more information to light. Allowing us to understand more about our early ancestors:

“We can really start to mine this amazing record of our joint evolutionary history with these key microorganisms that are basically part of our lives and keep us alive.”

neanderthals dental tartar

Although the tartar of Neanderthals may not tell the full story, it’s exciting to know it could shed a little bit more light on it. Though we may not recommend it, who would have thought a calculus build up could be so useful!

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