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Neanderthals knew how to use herbal pain relievers, study suggests

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John Burger - published on 03/15/17

Using DNA, scientists find clues pointing to advanced thinking among primitives

New research is suggesting that Neanderthals, who lived between about 400,000 and 40,000 years ago in Europe and southwestern to central Asia, found substances in nature to relieve pain.

A study published this week in the journal Nature, finds “evidence for self-medication” in a sample from El Sidrón cave in Spain. The sample came from a Neanderthal with a dental abscess and a chronic gastrointestinal pathogen.

As the BBC reported, the “sick Neanderthal chewed the bark of the poplar tree, which contains a chemical related to aspirin.”

He may also have been using penicillin, long before antibiotics were developed, the report said.

Using “shotgun-sequencing of ancient DNA” from five specimens of Neanderthal calcified dental plaque from about 40,000 years ago in central Europe, scientists inferred that Neanderthals had a good knowledge of medicinal plants and how these might relieve the pain of toothache or stomach ache, said the BBC. “They might also have used antibiotics, long before the medicines were developed in modern times.”

“You know, we’ve got a guy self-medicating either because he’s got a dental abscess, which was bad, or a nasty gastrointestinal parasite, which was also bad, either way he wasn’t a happy guy,” said Alan Cooper, director of the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA. “And, here he is eating aspirin and we’re finding penicillin mold in him.”

The study also suggests differences in diet according to region. “At Spy Cave, Belgium, Neanderthal diet was heavily meat based and included woolly rhinoceros and wild sheep (mouflon), characteristic of a steppe environment,” a summary of the study says. “In contrast, no meat was detected in the diet of Neanderthals from El Sidrón cave, Spain, and dietary components of mushrooms, pine nuts, and moss reflected forest gathering.”

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