DNA preserved in ancient dental calculus (a form of hardened plaque) has revealed distinct regional differences in the Neanderthal diet, reports a study published online in Nature this week. Genetic analyses of dental deposits can shed light on the eating habits of our hominin relatives, including the level of meat consumption.
Previous research into the diet of Neanderthals has highlighted the importance of local food availability yet provides limited data on the specific animals and plants that were consumed. Laura Weyrich and colleagues sequenced DNA from the calculus of five Neanderthal specimens from across Europe to provide a genetic reconstruction of their diet and health. They found that a Neanderthal from Spy in Belgium consumed woolly rhinoceros and wild sheep, whereas an individual from El Sidron in Spain ate pine nuts, moss and mushrooms. The authors also reconstructed oral microbiomes to assess health and disease. Results suggest that the Spanish Neanderthal had a dental abscess and a nasty stomach bug that they were self-medicating with poplar, a natural pain-killer, and the antibiotic-producing Penicillium bacteria.
In addition to these dietary insights, the team also identified the near-complete genome of an oral bacterium, which at around 48,000 years old is the oldest microbial draft genome yet discovered.