Ancient DNA found in the dental plaque of Neanderthals – our nearest extinct relative – has provided remarkable new insights into their behaviour, diet and evolutionary history, including their use of plant-based medicine to treat pain and illness.
Published today in the journal Nature, an international team led by the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) and Dental School, with the University of Liverpool in the UK, revealed the complexity of Neandertal behaviour, including dietary differences between Neanderthal groups and knowledge of medication.
“Dental plaque traps microorganisms that lived in the mouth and pathogens found in the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract, as well as bits of food stuck in the teeth – preserving the DNA for thousands of years,” says lead author Dr Laura Weyrich, ARC Discovery Early Career Research Fellow with ACAD.
“Genetic analysis of that DNA ‘locked-up’ in plaque, represents a unique window into Neandertal lifestyle – revealing new details of what they ate, what their health was like and how the environment impacted their behaviour.”
The international team analysed and compared dental plaque samples from four Neanderthals found at the cave sites of Spy in Belgium and El Sidrón in Spain. These four samples range from 42,000 to around 50,000 years old and are the oldest dental plaque ever to be genetically analysed.
“We found that the Neandertals from Spy Cave consumed woolly rhinoceros and European wild sheep, supplemented with wild mushrooms,” says Professor Alan Cooper, Director of ACAD. “Those from El Sidrón Cave on the other hand showed no evidence for meat consumption, but appeared instead to have a largely vegetarian diet, comprising pine nuts, moss, mushrooms and tree bark – showing quite different lifestyles between the two groups.”
“One of the most surprising finds, however, was in a Neanderthal from El Sidrón, who suffered from a dental abscess visible on the jawbone. The plaque showed that he also had an intestinal parasite that causes acute diarrhoea, so clearly he was quite sick. He was eating poplar, which contains the pain killer salicylic acid (the active ingredient of aspirin), and we could also detect a natural antibiotic mould (Penicillium) not seen in the other specimens.”
“Apparently, Neanderthals possessed a good knowledge of medicinal plants and their various anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, and seem to be self-medicating. The use of antibiotics would be very surprising, as this is more than 40,000 years before we developed penicillin. Certainly our findings contrast markedly with the rather simplistic view of our ancient relatives in popular imagination.”
Neanderthals, ancient and modern humans also shared several disease-causing microbes, including the bacteria that cause dental caries and gum disease. The Neandertal plaque allowed reconstruction of the oldest microbial genome yet sequenced – Methanobrevibacter oralis, a commensal that can be associated with gum disease. Remarkably, the genome sequence suggests Neandertals and humans were swapping pathogens as recently as 180,000 years ago, long after the divergence of the two species.
The team also noted how rapidly the oral microbial community has altered in recent history. The composition of the oral bacterial population in Neanderthals and both ancient and modern humans correlated closely with the amount of meat in the diet, with the Spanish Neanderthals grouping with chimpanzees and our forager ancestors in Africa. In contrast, the Belgian Neanderthal bacteria were similar to early hunter gatherers, and quite close to modern humans and early farmers.
“Not only can we now access direct evidence of what our ancestors were eating, but differences in diet and lifestyle also seem to be reflected in the commensal bacteria that lived in the mouths of both Neanderthals and modern humans,” says Professor Keith Dobney, from the University of Liverpool.
“Major changes in what we eat have, however, significantly altered the balance of these microbial communities over thousands of years, which in turn continue to have fundamental consequences for our own health and well-being. This extraordinary window on the past is providing us with new ways to explore and understand our evolutionary history through the microorganisms that lived in us and with us.”
Medicine at El Sidrón
While studies have shown that one of the El Sidrón individuals was a left-handed adult female, one other individual is considered the ‘Star of the Show’ by the project investigators. As previous studies have pointed out, this male individual appears to have used his mouth to sharpen the blades of stone tools (rather like a third hand), leading to chipping on the enamel and dentine on his upper teeth. Now, the study of his dental plaque has brought new and quite unique information to light.
“We have evidence that this Neanderthal was self-medicated. We have discovered that the plaque preserved in his teeth contains sequences of the pathogen Enterocytozoon bieneusi which causes gastrointestinal problems, including serious diarrhoea. Additionally, thanks to a hole in his jaw we know he had a dental abscess. Both health issues must have caused him intense pain”, Rosas points out.
What is more, this Neanderthal’s dental plaque contains traces of DNA from both the natural antibiotic fungus, penicillium, as well as from poplar, a tree whose bark, roots and leaves contain silicic acid, the active ingredient in well-known medications.
This is not the first nod in this direction, given that the researchers at El Sidrón had already taken part in a study which clearly showed that Neanderthals recognised the curative and nutritional properties of some plants, since they took camomile and yarrow, most probably to help digest heavy meals.
Exchange of microorganisms between Neanderthals and sapiens
The scientific investigators compared Neanderthal oral micro-biotic data with human samples from Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers, African nomads, the first Neolithic farmers as well as from present-day man.
“Micro-biotic information is key to learning about the host’s health. Neanderthals for example have fewer potentially pathogenic bacteria than we do. In today’s human population a link has been seen between oral micro-biotics and a spectrum of health issues such as cardiovascular problems, obesity, psoriasis, asthma, colitis and gastroesophageal reflux”, highlights CSIC researcher Carles Lalueza-Fox, who works at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (a CSIC-University of Pompeu Fabra shared centre).
Furthermore, the dental plaque from the individuals at El Sidrón has also made it possible to retrieve the oldest complete microorganism genome: the ancient Methanobrevibacter oralis, which is now classified as a Neanderthal subspecies. The Neanderthal and modern human strains appear to have diverged between 112,000 and 143,000 years ago, after the two evolutionary lines split.
“Today we know that crossbreeding took place on two occasions between sapiens and those Neanderthals who later lived in the Siberian region, but not with those in Asturias. If there was micro-biotic transfer between the Asturias Neanderthals and sapiens, then perhaps a cross-line existed between them, although we are yet to identify that”, concludes Lalueza Fox.
The El Sidrón cave
The El Sidrón cave, situated in Piloña, in Asturias in northern Spain, has provided the finest Neanderthal collection in the Iberian Peninsula and is one of the most active archaeological dig sites in the world. Discovered in 1994, around 2,500 skeletal remains from at least 13 individuals of both sexes and of varying ages who lived there around 49,000 years ago have been recovered.
The multidisciplinary team which worked at El Sidrón consisted of palaeontologist Antonio Rosas from CSIC’s National Natural Science Museum, the geneticist, Carles Lalueza-Fox, from the CSIC / Institute of Evolutionary Biology’s Pompeu Fabra University mixed centre, and the archaeologist, Marco de la Rasilla, from the University of Oviedo in Asturias.
At El Sidrón, the team developed a pioneering protocol, known as ‘clean excavation’, which minimises the risk of contaminating the early DNA with that of modern-day human DNA from the researchers working on the cave excavation. This allowed both nuclear and mitochondrial DNA to be extracted from teeth and skeletal remains. (Spanish National Research Council)
Another year, another April! Hope you enjoy this.
Topic: Pasta On April 1, 1957 the British news show Panorama broadcast a three-minute segment about a bumper spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland. The success of the crop was attributed both t…
Source: The Annual Swiss Spaghetti Harvesting
i almost forgot my annual fun post for April Fools day!
Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority archaeologist Abdulla Al Kaabi recording detail of the 7,000-year-old house on the island of Marawah, which reveals much about the lives and habits of Abu Dhabi’s earliest inhabitants. Photo courtesy Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority
By Shireena Al Nowais
ABU DHABI // Archaeologists have revealed the discovery of what they describe as one of the most remarkable and rare finds in the Gulf region – a 7,500-year-old, well-preserved three-room house.
The house was excavated on Marawah Island, just off the coast of Abu Dhabi, at what was once one of the region’s largest Stone Age settlements.
“These important discoveries signify Abu Dhabi’s advanced construction methods from the Neolithic [era] and the influential role it had in early long-distance maritime trade,” said Mohamed Al Mubarak, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority.
“The expertise of our team of archaeologists allows us to build a narrative of the emirate’s development and history, piecing together an intriguing and intricate story of the earliest known inhabitants of the emirate of Abu Dhabi.”
Abdulla Al Kaabi, TCA coastal heritage archaeologist, said radiocarbon dating of the deposit revealed the age of the house.
“This style of architecture is unique for this period and has never been found before in the region,” he said.
Dr Mark Beech, head of coastal heritage and palaeontology at TCA, said it was “very unusual” to find a Stone Age house “so well preserved that you have a complete plan of the structure”.
“It’s a stunning find because there are no parallels to it anywhere else in the Gulf coast region,” he said.
“You can see the back yard and small walls projecting out, which is where the cooking was carried out, just like traditional Arabian houses. We knew it was a Stone Age site but did not expect it to be so well preserved.”
The walls of the home are up to 70 centimetres wide, which enabled the residents to have corbelled walls, meaning they could build a dome shape by placing the stones on top of each other.
The site was excavated at one of seven mounds on the island.
Archaeologists predict that a complete Stone Age village could be unearthed.
“There are seven major mounds and we picked the smallest to excavate, so they potentially may have more than one structure,” Dr Beech said.
TCA said that artefacts found on the island had helped archaeologists piece together what life was like for these villagers.
They herded sheep and goats, and used stone tools to hunt and butcher other animals, such as gazelle. Small beads made from shell and a small shark’s tooth were also found at the site and had been very carefully drilled, leading archaeologists to believe they were probably worn as adornments.
One of their most significant finds, during previous excavations, was a decorated ceramic jar from Iraq – the earliest evidence of sea trade during that period.
“The recent excavations have clarified a lot of questions we had about this period,” Dr Beech said. “It tells us about life in the Stone Age and that people had domestic animals, but they also relied a lot on marine life.
“It also shows that they had a varied diet and were involved in long-distance trade, as we see with the pottery. Life on these islands was actually quite good.
“You had food resources, water supply and trade, and, of course, the climate was better than the present time.”
Villagers lived in a completely different setting, with freshwater lakes and more vegetation.
While the island is a marine protected site and not open to the public, some items could be placed on display at public museums.
“Material will gradually go on display but we are still studying, doing investigations and preparing publications,” said Dr Beech.
“Sometimes it takes many years of work to document a site because we have to be very careful, drawing maps, documenting, studying.”
The Marawah excavations will continue for many years because “it’s a slow, painstaking process of digging, screening and putting everything through a 1 millimetre sieve and sorting it”, he said.
New excavations at Baynunah, about 130 kilometres south-west of Abu Dhabi, have also revealed a different side of ancient life in the emirate.
The desert surface of the site is “littered” with white fragments of bones of ancient wild camels – the remains of animals that were hunted and killed 6,500 years ago, TCA said.
The site has provided the earliest evidence in the Middle East for the mass killing of wild camels. Research is being conducted on the near-complete skeletons that will allow experts to discover more about the biology of wild camels, TCA said.
TRINITY COLLEGE DUBLIN—New research indicates that Baltic hunter-gatherers were not swamped by migrations of early agriculturalists from the Middle East, as was the case for the rest of central and western Europe. Instead, these people probably acquired knowledge of farming and ceramics by sharing cultures and ideas—rather than genes—with outside communities.
Scientists extracted ancient DNA from a number of archaeological remains discovered in Latvia and the Ukraine, which were between 5,000 and 8,000 years old. These samples spanned the Neolithic period, which was the dawn of agriculture in Europe, when people moved from a mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a settled way of life based on food production.
We know through previous research that large numbers of early farmers from the Levant (the Near East) – driven by the success of their technological innovations such as crops and pottery – had expanded to the peripheral parts of Europe by the end of the Neolithic and largely replaced hunter-gatherer populations.
However, the new study, published today in the journal Current Biology, shows that the Levantine farmers did not contribute to hunter-gatherers in the Baltic as they did in Central and Western Europe.
The research team, which includes scientists from Trinity College Dublin, the University of Cambridge, and University College Dublin, says their findings instead suggest that the Baltic hunter-gatherers learned these skills through communication and cultural exchange with outsiders.
The findings feed into debates around the ‘Neolithic package,’—the cluster of technologies such as domesticated livestock, cultivated cereals and ceramics, which revolutionised human existence across Europe during the late Stone Age.
Advances in ancient DNA work have revealed that this ‘package’ was spread through Central and Western Europe by migration and interbreeding: the Levant and later Anatolian farmers mixing with and essentially replacing the hunter-gatherers.
But the new work suggests migration was not a ‘universal driver’ across Europe for this way of life. In the Baltic region, archaeology shows that the technologies of the ‘package’ did develop—albeit less rapidly—even though the analyses show that the genetics of these populations remained the same as those of the hunter-gatherers throughout the Neolithic.
The Neolithic peoples of the Baltics acquired agriculture and other elements of permanent settlement culture through diffusion, not through large migratory movements from Anatolia and the Middle East, according to genetic study. Gromko, Wikimedia Commons
Andrea Manica, one of the study’s senior authors from the University of Cambridge, said: “Almost all ancient DNA research up to now has suggested that technologies such as agriculture spread through people migrating and settling in new areas.”
“However, in the Baltic, we find a very different picture, as there are no genetic traces of the farmers from the Levant and Anatolia who transmitted agriculture across the rest of Europe.”
“The findings suggest that indigenous hunter-gatherers adopted Neolithic ways of life through trade and contact, rather than being settled by external communities. Migrations are not the only model for technology acquisition in European prehistory.”
While the sequenced genomes showed no trace of the Levant farmer influence, one of the Latvian samples did reveal genetic influence from a different external source—one that the scientists say could be a migration from the Pontic Steppe in the east. The timing (5-7,000 years ago) fits with previous research estimating the earliest Slavic languages.
Researcher Eppie Jones, from Trinity College Dublin and the University of Cambridge, was the lead author of the study. She said: “There are two major theories on the spread of Indo-European languages, the most widely spoken language family in the world. One is that they came from the Anatolia with the agriculturalists; another that they developed in the Steppes and spread at the start of the Bronze Age.”
“That we see no farmer-related genetic input, yet we do find this Steppe-related component, suggests that at least the Balto-Slavic branch of the Indo-European language family originated in the Steppe grasslands of the East, which would bring later migrations of Bronze Age horse riders.”
The researchers point out that the time scales seen in Baltic archaeology are also very distinct to the rest of Europe, with a much more drawn-out and piecemeal uptake of Neolithic technologies, rather than the complete ‘package’ that arrives with migrations to take most of Europe by storm.
Andrea Manica added: “Our evidence of genetic continuity in the Baltic, coupled with the archaeological record showing a prolonged adoption of Neolithic technologies, would suggest the existence of trade networks with farming communities largely independent of interbreeding.”
“It seems the hunter-gatherers of the Baltic likely acquired bits of the Neolithic package slowly over time through a ‘cultural diffusion’ of communication and trade, as there is no sign of the migratory wave that brought farming to the rest of Europe during this time.
“The Baltic hunter-gatherer genome remains remarkably untouched until the great migrations of the Bronze Age sweep in from the East.”
About the study
The researchers analysed eight ancient genomes – six from Latvia and two from Ukraine – that spanned a timeframe of three and a half thousand years (between 8,300 and 4,800 years ago). This enabled them to start plotting the genetic history of Baltic inhabitants during the Neolithic.
DNA was extracted from the petrous area of skulls that had been recovered by archaeologists from some of the region’s richest Stone Age cemeteries. The petrous, at the base of the skull, is one of the densest bones in the body, and a prime location for DNA that has suffered the least contamination over millennia.
Article Source: Trinity College Dublin
By Catherine Zuckerman
All that marauding must have left the Vikings famished. It’s easy to envision a group of them around a table, ravenous after a long day of ransacking, devouring giant hunks of meat and hoisting horns-full of ale.
But that wouldn’t quite be fair, or accurate.
As tempting as it is to assume that Viking meals were crude and carnivorous, the truth is that everyday Viking fare included a range of foods that a health-minded modern person would applaud.
Picture, for example, that burly, bearded warrior throwing down his sword to enjoy a tart treat similar to yogurt, or refuel with a tangle of fresh greens.
“The Vikings had a wide range of food and wild herbs available to make tasty and nutritious dishes,” says Diana Bertelsen, who helped research and develop recipes for Denmark’s Ribe Viking Center—a reconstructed Viking settlement where visitors can immerse themselves in just about every aspect of Viking culture, including what and how they ate.
“There are no original recipes from the Viking age available,” says Bertelsen, but “we know for certain what crops and animals were available a thousand years ago. Excavations reveal what the Vikings ate and what they imported, for instance peaches and cinnamon.”
Of course a specific Viking’s diet was heavily influenced by his or her location, says medieval scholar Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough. In cold, dry, coastal Scandinavia, for example, fish such as herring and salmon provided a key source of protein and were typically dried and preserved in salt.
This “stockfish,” as it’s called, “is a bit like beef jerky, only fishy,” says Barraclough. “It would have been a valuable food source on long sea journeys.”
Wealth also played a part in determining one’s diet, says Barraclough. “In Greenland, Vikings ate more seals, particularly on the poorer farms, while on the richer farms they ate more caribou.”
Seasons, too, dictated a Viking’s daily provisions. Depending on the time of year, meals might include a wide variety of berries, turnips, cabbage and other greens—including seaweed—barley-based porridge, and flat bread made from rye. Dishes were typically simple, but “we have no reason to believe that the food was bland and tasteless,” says Bertelsen.
Indeed, archaeological evidence suggests that Viking cooks were fond of flavor-enhancing ingredients like onions, garlic, coriander, and dill.
Vikings also prepared special food to celebrate seasonal events. “Boars were said to be sacrificed during the winter Yule celebration, and solemn oaths taken on their bristles,” says Barraclough.
Dairy would have made a frequent appearance in many a Viking diet. The seafaring warriors were farmers, after all, and skilled at animal husbandry. Cows and sheep did provide meat, but they also gave the Vikings a reliable supply of buttermilk, cheese, butter, and other products.
In Iceland, especially, Vikings enjoyed their dairy, and often ate it in the form of skyr, a fermented, yogurt-like cheese that today is sometimes marketed as a dairy “superfood.” Viking lore mentions the creamy substance, says Barraclough, who recalls a “saga where a man hides from his enemies in a vat of skyr—which comes very specifically up to his nipples.”
Like much about the Vikings, their eating habits remain a source of fascination—and inspiration—for many people. In fact, given the Vikings’ physical strength and surprisingly healthy diet, it makes sense to wonder: Could the “Viking Diet” be the next “Paleo?”