Neanderthals Self-Medicated With Plants, Researchers Say

By Victoria Kim 03/16/17

A new study suggests Neanderthals may have used natural painkillers found in plants.

Prehistoric Man.

Neanderthals may have been conscious of the medicinal properties of certain plants, according to a new study published this month in the journal Nature.

The study examined the dental plaque of three Neanderthals found in Spain and Belgium. The calcified plaque samples, ranging between 39,000 to 48,000 years old, allowed researchers to study the diets of the ancient specimens.

The archaic humans went extinct about 40,000 years ago and share 99.7% of their DNA with modern humans.

Researchers say that one of the specimens found in Spain appeared to be “self-medicating” a tooth abscess with the bark of the poplar tree, which has salicylic acid, a natural source of the active ingredient in aspirin.

The plaque sample in this particular specimen also suggested the presence of penicillium, a natural form of the antibiotic penicillin. Penicillium grows naturally on plant material as it molds, explains the New Scientist.

“Apparently, Neanderthals possessed a good knowledge of medicinal plants and their various anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties,” said one of the researchers, Professor Alan Cooper of Australia’s University of Adelaide. “The use of antibiotics would be very surprising, as this is more than 40,000 years before we developed penicillin.”

However, Cooper doesn’t discount the possibility that the individual actually wasn’t aware of the plants’ healing properties.

On the other hand, the medicinal plants were not detected in the other Neanderthal found in Spain, who appeared to be in better health than the individual with the tooth abscess. This could mean the sickly Neanderthal intentionally consumed the plants to self-medicate.

“They might have had some knowledge that moldy grains [penicillium] could help them when they were sick—we just don’t really know,” said Laura Weyrich, the lead author of the study.

But if the Neanderthals were indeed conscious of plant medicines, it would be a groundbreaking discovery. “It’s pretty phenomenal that these guys were so in tune with their environment and to know what was going on and how to treat things," said Weyrich.

The dental plaque analysis also suggested Neanderthals swapped spit with humans. “Once humans and Neanderthals began to occupy the same geographical ranges, it is likely that they drank from the same streams, perhaps salvaged food from one another,” Professor Adam Siepel of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, told the New Scientist.

It’s also possible that the two species swapped oral bacteria through kissing, says Weyrich. This could give insight to whether ancient interbreeding between the two was forced or consensual. “It’s a very different interaction from brash interbreeding,” said Weyrich. “It’s very intimate.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr