Humans are the most intelligent animals on Earth (according to humans), but how smart were our closest extinct relative Neanderthals? An international team of scientists managed to find evidence in DNA found in the dental plaque of Neanderthals that they were so smart that they even used plant-based medicine to treat pain and illness. This discovery was made possible by their poor hygiene habits though.
Scientists from the University of Adelaide and the University of Liverpool analysed DNA of dental plaques of Neanderthals, because they trap food and actually represent what they were consuming pretty accurately. It is like a unique history book – scientists can tell what their diet was like, how they adapted themselves to the environmental condition, how they handled health problems and so on. Four samples that scientists were analysing are 42,000-50,000 years old and came from Belgium and Spain. They are the oldest dental plaques to be examined genetically and so it was quite a task.
Researchers found that Neanderthals from Belgium enjoyed a rich diet of woolly rhinoceros and European wild sheep, sometimes adding some mushrooms to their meals. Those from Spain were mostly vegetarian, eating pine nuts, moss, mushrooms and tree bark. It means that Neanderthals from different regions adapted themselves to different conditions and could eat almost anything. The most interesting findings are related to their health. Scientists found that one individual was sick – he had parasites and suffered from a dental abscess. He was eating poplar, which has pain killing properties, and a natural antibiotic mould (Penicillium) – healthy individuals were not eating these plants.
It just goes to show that we are imagining Neanderthals way too primitive – they already had some knowledge of herbal medicine. Scientists also revealed that modern humans and Neanderthals share the disease-causing microbes, including the bacteria that cause dental caries and gum disease. Professor Keith Dobney, from the University of Liverpool, said: “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”.
Scientists say that this research served as a window to the past, allowing them to see what microorganisms used to live with us and in us. People still think Neanderthals were primitive and went extinct because of their lack of intelligence. However, this research shows that they were much smarter than we might think – they were technically using Aspirin and antibiotics thousands of years before we invented them.