What Did a Neanderthal Eat? You May Be Surprised!

neanderthal photo
Photo by erix!

Your plaque can say a lot about what you eat. More than you’d think, too– did you know that the plaque on your teeth might tell archaeologists thousands of years in the future what you had for dinner? Or at least, that’s the case with the plaque that archaeologists have found on the teeth of Neanderthals!

By analyzing the DNA in the plaque on ancient Neanderthal teeth, scientists working in Europe have been able to establish the diets of a number of different neanderthal populations. Neanderthals across Europe were analyzed, from El Sidron cave in Spain, to Italy’s Breuil Cave, to Spy Cave in Belgium, leading to evidence that suggests the diet of Neanderthals was about as varied as our own!

Evidence suggests that some Neanderthals were vegetarian

Unsurprisingly, many Neanderthals dined on meat, from wooly rhinocerous, to mammoth, to wild sheep. What came as some surprise, however, was evidence that some Neanderthals–specifically, the bones found at El Sidron–suggest that some groups were largely vegetarian, with evidence of edible mushrooms, pine nuts, moss, and trees all present in higher concentrations than meat. Not only that, but there is some evidence that the El Sidron Neanderthals actually ate mold as a food source, as shown by the presence of fungal pathogens in their plaque!

Diet isn’t the only thing that ancient plaque can show:

one of the Neanderthals in the El Sidron cave seemed to be using medicinal plants and fungi as a rudimentary antibiotic. The plaque analysis showed the presence of poplar tree, which isn’t known for being particularly edible; one of the only benefits of eating poplar is the presence of the pain-relieving salicylic acid, which is the active ingredient in asprin. Not only that, but the plaque showed evidence of antibiotic mold similar in nature to penicillin!

One of the most surprising finds, though, was the presence of Methanovreibacter oralis in Neanderthal plaque. For those of you who aren’t oral pathologists, M. oralis is a strain of bacteria that we dentists frequently deal with– it’s a main source of cavities and gum disease in modern humans! It’s an interesting–and unexpected–moment of connection with the past!

It’s fascinating to us to see how connected we are with populations that lived tens of thousands of years ago, right down to the DNA of the bacteria in our mouths! We here at Dr. Matthews office love that feeling of connection. Because, after all, we all have teeth!

Dan Matthews DDS
Dan Matthews Dan Matthews DDS The Park at Eanes Creek,
4407 Bee Cave Road
Building 2, Suite 221
Austin, Texas, 78746
(512) 452-2273
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