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Neanderthals: Drugs, Diet & Dentistry

A fascinating new study has unearthed some previously unknown information about how Neanderthals lived …and the researchers did it with dentistry! While Dr. Norton hasn’t worked on any Neanderthals personally, this just goes to show the far reaching capabilities dentistry has to heal, beautify and even solve mysteries! Read on to learn about some of the more interesting highlights from the latest study regarding the lifestyle of Neanderthals as it relates to their consumption of food and medicine.

From studying the remains and hardened dental plaque of 4 Neanderthals, scientists have discovered that some Neanderthals used plant medicines and despite their often brutish reputations, some were even vegetarians. One Neanderthal who appeared to be suffering from dental abscesses and diarrhea appeared to be treating himself with poplar which contains the active ingredient in aspirin and was also consuming a natural form of penicillin! This suggests that these early relatives of humans had knowledge of the medicinal effects of these plants… 40,000 years before the development of penicillin!

You might be wondering how this knowledge was acquired. The process of performing dentistry on the remains of Neanderthals involved analyzing the oldest dental plaque ever analyzed genetically with samples aging between 42,000 – 50,000 years old. How is that possible, you ask? Dental plaque is a type of biofilm of bacteria that hardens and calcifies. This process can preserve bacteria for many thousands of years. From this calcified biofilm, DNA can be extracted from the microorganisms within the plaque. This is the first study where this method of DNA extraction from dental plaque has been done for an extinct species!

Who doesn’t love learning about ancient history and our prehistoric ancestors? If any Neanderthals are still hiding out somewhere reading this, come on in for a dental cleaning in Gilbert… you’re probably overdue!

Images used under creative commons license – commercial use (3/14/2017) Allan Henderson (Flickr)