Neanderthals died nearly 50,000 years ago. But a new study reveals that they actively used antibiotics tens of thousands of years before modern humans discovered penicillin. While past studies have suggested that Neanderthals had a meat-heavy diet, the new study shows that some of them also feasted on all kinds of plants. Findings of the study were discussed in the journal Nature.

Spanish Neanderthals
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Tartar contained DNA evidence of what they ate

Neanderthals did not have access to dental cleaning services, neither did they visit the dentist. So, their dental plaques contained bits of food and the microorganisms, which helped an international team of scientists study their lifestyle and eating habits. Researchers led by Laura Weyrich of the University of Adelaide in Australia studied the plaques of two individuals from El Sidrón Cave in northern Spain and one from a cave in Spy, Belgium.

While the Spanish Neanderthal fossils are 48,000 years old, the one from Belgium is estimated to be 36,000-year-old. Researchers took the hardened version of the plaque known as tartar or calculus, and analyzed the DNA. The tartar contained food particles and microbes from the gastrointestinal tracts, mouth, and respiratory tracts. The Belgian individual feasted mostly on meat. Scientists found genetic evidence of wild sheep, woolly rhinoceros, as well as mushrooms.

Spanish individuals were mostly vegetarian

The Belgian individual’s meat-heavy diet wasn’t a huge surprise. In the past, researchers have recovered bones of mammoths, horses, woolly rhinos, and reindeer from the Spy Cave in Belgium. Other indirect evidence such as high levels of nitrogen isotopes also pointed to a meat-heavy diet. Laura Weyrich said in a statement that Neanderthals were “as carnivorous as polar bears.”

But the Neanderthals in Spain had surprisingly different eating habits. The DNA in their dental plaques showed no evidence of meat. Weyrich and her colleagues found things like moss, tree barks, pine nuts, and mushrooms. However, paleobiologist Hervé Bocherens of the University of Tübingen, Germany, argues that no evidence of meat does not mean the Spanish Neanderthals were pure vegetarians. Genetic databases covering the plants and animals might not contain extinct species that Neanderthals might have eaten.

Spanish Neanderthals knew about medicinal plants

Weyrich says the difference in the eating habits of the two groups is mainly because they lived in entirely different environments. The Northern Europe, which includes Belgium, was mountainous and grassy, with animals wandering through the grasslands. In contrast, the Spanish Neanderthals lived in dense forests. So, they feasted largely on plants and mushrooms.

The Spanish Neanderthals also used plants for self-medication. One individual suffering from a dental abscess had been eating the bark of poplar trees that contained salicylic acid (found in aspirin). Scientists also found evidence of Penicillium mould, a natural antibiotic. It indicates that they had good knowledge of medicinal plants and their properties.