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Neanderthal Dental Plaque

April 19, 2018

Dental plaque from ancient Neanderthals reveals that they used herbal remedies.


134760_web Paleoanthropology Group MNCN-CSIC; Photo by Antonio Rosas

El Sidron: Working in the Tunnel of Bones cave, where 12 Neanderthal specimens dating around 49,000 years ago have been recovered. (Antonio Rosas/Paleoanthropology Group MNCN-CSIC)


Prehistoric dental forensics. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

You and your dentist may hate dental plaque, but paleomicrobiologists like Laura Weyrich at the University of Adelaide love the stuff. In the journal Nature, she and her colleagues report analyzing food and microbe DNA preserved in plaque from ancient Neanderthals. They discovered that Neanderthal diets varied substantially, from carnivorous to nearly vegetarian. They also found that an individual with a painful dental abscess and intestinal parasite was medicating himself.

LAURA WEYRICH (University of Adelaide, Australia):

He was consuming poplar bark, which has salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin, and he was also consuming penicillium, which is a mold that produces penicillin, which is an antibiotic.


She says comparing the Neanderthals’ oral environment to that of modern humans also helps scientists understand the role of diet, microbes and lifestyle in maintaining health.  I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Story by Bob Hirshon

134759_web Paleoanthropology Group MNCN-CSIC

El Sidron upper jaw: a dental calculus deposit is visible on the rear molar (right) of this Neandertal. (Paleoanthropology Group MNCN-CSIC)