Just when you thought all Neanderthals were alike—cave-dwelling unsophisticates whose matted-hair, bad breath and eating habits could make us blush—say “hola!” to the Neanderthals of northern Spain.
The worlds of paleomicrobiology and archeological genetics are abuzz with DNA findings scraped off the dental plaque of a collective of Neanderthals from the El Sidrón Cave. Some 50,000 years ago, they dined on mushrooms (think truffles!), moss, tree bark and pine nuts. While most Neanderthals, especially those from the Spy region of Belgium, were hardy carnivores dining on plentiful wild sheep and the occasional woolly rhinoceros, El Sidrón’s denizens opted for more delicate fare as they foraged for tasty plants.
Researchers found the mouths of El Sidrón Neanderthals were awash with more than 200 different types of microbes (small parasitic organisms that we all carry), these microbes may tell us more than just about the dietary habits of these hairy herbivores.
Just like modern-day humans, El Sidrón Neanderthals self-medicated. They ingested plants for their curative effects. DNA from Poplar trees containing salicylic acid used in aspirin and Penicillium mould, the source of penicillin, were evident. One scientist suspects they were trying to treat a variety of maladies, from gum disease and a tooth abscess to a stomach infection caused by the bacterium Enterocytozoon bieneusi, which incidentally causes severe diarrhea. Ai-Ai-Ai!
Finally, there’s another tell-tale DNA tidbit—Methanobrevibachter oralis—a microbe present in modern humans indicates that there was quite a bit of bonhomie among Neanderthals suggesting either a swapping of spit due to food sharing or just plain kissing. As one scientist exclaimed, “these interactions were much friendlier and much more intimate than anybody could ever possibly imagine.” Indeed.
One will never really know if they were sharing prehistoric meals or just yearning for intimacy but clearly the archaebacterium leaves the cave door open for both.
-By Rose-Marie Brandwein