Neanderthals may have self-medicated long before pills, study shows

(CNN)Turns out, Neanderthals were just like us. When in pain, they self-medicated.

A new study that focused on the hardened dental plaque of four Neanderthals --two found at a site in Spain and two from Belgium -- indicates they may have turned to plants to relieve pain.
One young Neanderthal in Spain appeared to treat a dental abscess with medicinal plants, highlighting an ability toseek pain relief long before pills came into existence, according to the study.
    The study published Wednesday in the journal Nature had several surprises.
    For starters, the Neanderthals from Spain had completely different diets from their counterparts found in Belgium.
    They chowed on various foods, including mushrooms, pine nuts and sheep meat, depending on the region they lived in.


    "In ancient dental calculus, we are able to find DNA from the microorganisms in the plaque, but also anything else that has gone into the mouth, including food or work items -- for example if ancient people were cutting rope with their teeth, we might be able to see the DNA from the plant material used to make the rope," Weyrich said.
    But where did the idea of studying dental plaque come from?
    Weyrich and Cooper were part of the research group that ignited this new research field in 2013 with the goal of understanding how health and disease has changed through time.
    "This method really is a new groundbreaking way to do that," Weyrich said. "We figured out that we could obtain bacterial DNA from dental plaque that was calcified on ancient skeletons. This is the first time it has been applied on an extinct species.

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    "Being able to hold a Neanderthal skull, and essentially take him to the dentist, was certainly something you don't get to do everyday! It's difficult to convince a museum that they should destructively sample a Neanderthal for a brand new field of research. We're so glad that several groups put their trust in us and our research."
    Being able to take a closer look at the DNA on these samples has also provided our best glimpse yet into the Neanderthal lifestyle. For example, it revealed more about the microorganisms present in modern humans that are actually shared with Neanderthals.
    "These particular organisms looks to be shared between Neanderthals and humans about 120,000 year ago, or about the time that humans and Neandertals were interbreeding," Weyrich said. "These interbreeding encounters were often described as brash, rough one-night stands, but if they were swapping oral microorganisms, it means they were also swapping spit. So, potentially kissing or food sharing would have been involved, which suggests that these encounters may have been much more friendly than anyone imagined."

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