Study: Neanderthals Used Aspirin, Penicillin

Neanderthal model. Reconstruction of a Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis) based on the La Chapelle-aux-Saints fossils. Neanderthals inhabited Europe and western Asia between 230,000 and 29,000 years ago. They did not use complex tools but had mastery of fire and built shelters. It is thought that they had language and a complex social structure, living in small family groups and hunting for food. It is not known why Neanderthals became extinct, but one theory is that they were outcompeted by modern humans (Homo sapiens). Reconstruction by Elisabeth Daynes of the Daynes Studio, Paris, France.

Scientists, who have studied the oldest dental plaque from our nearest extinct relatives, say that Neanderthals used primitive versions of aspirin and penicillin to treat themselves 40,000 years ago.

Researchers from University of Adelaide in Australia and University of Liverpool in Britain recently analysed and compared dental plaque samples from four Neanderthals found at the cave sites of Spy in Belgium and El Sidron in Spain. These four samples, ranging from 42,000 to around 50,000-year-old, are the oldest dental plaque ever to be genetically analysed.

Alan Cooper, the Director of Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD, the University of Adelaide), said: “We found that Neanderthals from Spy Cave consumed woolly rhinoceros and European wild sheep, supplemented with wild mushrooms.” He also said that they found Methanobrevibacter, Enterocytozoon bieneusi, Populus trichocarpa and Penicillium rubens while decoding genes of organic traces trapped in teeth plaque.

According to Cooper, Methanobrevibacter is a bacterium that suggests presence of an abscess, while the presence of Enterocytozoon bieneusi is an evidence of an intestinal parasite that would have caused diarrhea. Populus trichocarpa is a poplar tree that contains salicylic acid and is related to the active ingredient of aspirin. It acts as a natural pain killer that would have helped Neanderthals sooth pain from an abscess. Penicillium rubens, a food fungus and source of medical penicillin, is a natural antibiotic that could have been effective against a gut parasite.

Laura Weyrich, also from the ACAD, said it is evident from the presence of Methanobrevibacter, Enterocytozoon bieneusi, Populus trichocarpa and Penicillium rubens in the upper jaw of a male Neanderthan found in El Sidron that our ancestors had a good knowledge about the medicinal properties of plants. So, they were able to use primitive versions of aspirin and penicillin to treat themselves, she added.

Weyrich stressed that the DNA, found in the dental plaque, provided remarkable new insights into the behaviour and diet of the Neanderthals. She explained: “Dental plaque traps micro-organisms 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 the DNA ‘locked-up’ in plaque will help scientists know about Neanderthal lifestyle and reveal details of what they ate, what their health was like and how environment impacted their behaviour, Weyrich told reporters.

Neanderthals were a species or subspecies of archaic humans in the genus Homo that went extinct about 40,000 years ago. Neanderthals and modern humans share 99.7% of their DNA and are hence closely related.

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