Stone Age Aspirin

11 Mar 2017

At ... this story has been around for a week or so (see also ) ... a microbiologist at the University of Adelaide and colleagues analysed hardened plaque from the teeth of five Neanderthal skulls from Belgium and Spain. They date from between 42,000 and 50,000 years ago. Chipping small bits of plaque off to sequence for DNA they found Neanderthals in Belgium ate a lot of meat, and mushrooms. The meat came from wild sheep and woolly rhinoceros. However, down in Spain where it was forested, the diet consisted of pine nuts, mosses, and mushrooms again. One of them had a dental abcess (when alive) and this individual showed traces of salicylic acid, an active ingredient in aspirin. Obviously, they didn't have tablets but they did have access to plants with elements of aspirin in them - and the existence of the abcess suggests the salicylic acid was purposely ingested to soothe the pain. Which is a remarkable discovery. Further, it also seems there is evidence of the use of penicillin - suggesting the use of a mould in order to create the antibiotic. 

Neanderthals, therefore, had a good knowledge of plants and how they might be used to alleviate pain such as toothache or stomach ache. They may also have used antibiotics - but this is less certain. Whatever, this is clear evidence that Neanderthals were taking medicine when they were ill, a distinctly different vision of them as that implies intelligence and cognitive ability not normally associated with cave men - and grunts. As more and more is becoming known about Neanderthals it is increasingly becoming clear they were not a lot different than we are (except in skull and body shape). Neanderthals were the European equivalent of the Aborigines - and because of the bottleneck around 40,000 years ago they disappeared. Or did they. Modern Europeans have around 4 per cent of Neanderthal genes. 

There is also another twist to the story. Analysis of bacteria in the mouths of the Neanderthals showed a similarity with bacteria in early modern humans. The anthropologist quipped - may be they had been kissing (to pass the bacteria on). The oral micro-organisms indicate a direct descent from one to the other. We are back to the bottleneck again.