Neanderthals Treated Pain With A Form Of Aspirin

When you've got a toothache, you probably reach for pain medication. According to scientists, Neanderthals did too. Samples from their dental plaque show evidence that sick Neanderthals reached for plants that contained the active ingredient in aspirin.

Ancient Dental Exams

In 2017, an international team published a paper in the journal Nature detailing results from DNA tests they performed on fossils of Neanderthal teeth. The four fossils they tested were between 42,000 and 50,000 years old and came from two different areas: two were from Spy cave in Belgium, and two were from El Sidrón cave in Spain.

In tests of their dental calculus—the hardened result of plaque buildup—they found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the Neanderthals from Belgium ate a different diet than those from Spain, the first subsisting on wooly rhinoceros, wild sheep, and wild mushrooms, with the latter relying on a meat-free diet of pine nuts, moss, mushrooms, and tree bark.

It Cures What Ails You

One of the Spanish Neanderthals was not in good shape: the DNA evidence showed he suffered from a dental abscess and the intestinal parasite known as microsporidia, which causes severe diarrhea. He, but not his Spanish companion, had been eating a steady diet of poplar. Poplar contains salicylic acid, which is the active ingredient in—you guessed it—aspirin. Even more surprising, the fossil also showed signs that he had been eating plants covered in Penicillium mold, the source of the antibiotic penicillin. That's right: this neanderthal may have been using a form of an antibiotic that wasn't developed until 40,000 years later.

"Apparently, Neandertals possessed a good knowledge of medicinal plants and their various anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, and seem to be self-medicating," said Professor Alan Cooper of the University of Adelaide in a press release. "Certainly our findings contrast markedly with the rather simplistic view of our ancient relatives in popular imagination."

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Watch And Learn: Our Favorite Content About Neanderthals

Dental Plaque Reveals Nature Of Neanderthal Diet

Hear What Neanderthals Sounded Like

One of the Curiosity staff's favorite.

Key Facts In This Video

  1. The throat of a Neanderthal is shorter than that of a human, meaning a Neanderthal voice was likely higher. 00:16

  2. Neanderthals' voices would have been affected by their deep rib cages and large nasal cavities. 00:45

  3. This is what a Neanderthal may have sounded like: 01:51

Written by Ashley Hamer March 31, 2017

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