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ADELAIDA, Australia / LIVERPOOL, UK: ancient DNA contained in the mineralized deposits on the teeth of Neanderthals – the extinct hominids closest to modern humans – provided new data on their behavior, nutrition and evolution. An international research team analyzed DNA samples obtained from tartar from 42,000 to 50,000 years old; the source of the material was the skulls of four Neanderthals, whose remains were discovered in caves in Belgium and Spain. The results show that Neanderthals had complex behaviors, were familiar with herbal medicines, and had different food preferences.

According to the researchers, the DNA preserved in the tartar of Neanderthals is an important source of information about the behavior and health of ancient hominids. After analyzing samples of this DNA, scientists found that Neanderthals living in the Belgian caves of Spy, eat meat of woolly rhinos and European wild sheep, as well as mushrooms. Their relatives from El Cidron Caves from Spain, on the contrary, adhered to a vegetarian diet that included moss, mushrooms, cones and bark, but apparently no meat. The results of the study show that these two groups of Neanderthals ate completely differently.

“Tartar envelops microorganisms living in the oral cavity, and pathogens from the respiratory tract and digestive tract, as well as bits of food stuck in the teeth. Because of this, their DNA lasts for thousands of years, ”says lead author of the study, Dr. Laura Weyrich, a fellow at the Australian Council for Research, an Australian Center for Ancient DNA Research (ACAD) at the University of Adelaide.

“However, one of the most striking discoveries was the story of a Neanderthal from El Sidron, who suffered from an abscess, the traces of which are clearly visible on the jaw. In addition, a study of tartar showed that he also had intestinal parasites that caused acute diarrhea; in general, it was a very sick Neanderthal. He used poplar wood, which contains salicylic acid, known for its analgesic effect (and which is the active ingredient in aspirin). We were also able to identify a natural antibiotic in his tartar, the penicillin, which has no traces in other samples, ”she adds.

In addition, differences in nutrition were associated with changes in the microbiota of the oral cavity; this suggests that eating meat significantly affects its nature. “Now we have not only factual material that allows us to determine what our ancestors ate, but also direct evidence that differences in lifestyle and nutrition affect the composition of the commensal bacteria communities that inhabit the oral cavity of Neanderthals and are present in the oral cavity of a modern person, – Co-author of the study, Professor Keith Dobney of the University of Liverpool, notes. “A significant restructuring of the human diet over the past millennia led to a significant change in the balance of these microbial communities, which, in turn, had fundamental consequences for the health and well-being of people.”

The study Neanderthal behavior, diet, and disease inferred from ancient DNA in dental calculus (Behavior, nutrition and disease of Neanderthals; results of a study of ancient DNA contained in tartar) was published on April 20 in the journal Nature. It was conducted by ACAD in collaboration with the University of Liverpool, UK.

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