Dental plaque found in ancient Neanderthal remains in El Sidrón Cave, Spain, has provided
further insights into our nearest relatives’ behavior, diet, and knowledge of medicinal plants.
Dental plaque can trap microorganisms that live in the mouth, food particles, and pathogens
found in the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts, preserving DNA for thousands of
years.
The Neanderthal whose remains were studied displayed evidence of a dental abscess, as
could be seen through observation of the fossilized jawbone. Remnants of an intestinal
parasite that causes severe diarrhea were evident as well. However, poplar, which contains
salicylic acid (a painkiller), and antibiotic mold (Penicillium) were also found in this ill
Neanderthal’s system. This finding seems to indicate that Neanderthals had knowledge of the medicinal qualities of plants. The
use of antibiotics predates the development of penicillin by 40,000 years.
When you combine this new information with other findings, Neanderthals appear to have been much more sophisticated than
we modern humans have given them credit for. They also decorated their abodes with cave art, buried their dead, and evidence
points to them being the first jewelers. Yes, they may have engaged in cannibalism, too, but no one’s perfect.
A little dental plaque can go a long way, providing a window into the Neanderthal lifestyle—their diet, health, and environmental
influences on their behavior. In addition, the evolution of oral microorganisms can be charted, and there’s been notable change
from ancient Neanderthals to modern humans. Something to think about the next time you’re snacking.

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