These 50,000 Year Old Teeth Just Proved Us Wrong About Early Humans

March 10th 2017

Ethan Simon

A new study into the dental plaque of Neanderthals may upend the conventional wisdom about how and what they ate, and even hints at kisses between Neanderthals and early humans.

Neanderthal Bust Smithsonian

"The stereotypical picture of Neanderthals paints them as hunting the woolly mammoth," writes Cathleen O'Grady in Ars Technica, but that conventional wisdom might be under scrutiny due to new findings published in Nature, a scientific journal. The study compared the genetic material left on the teeth of Neanderthals discovered at the El Sidrón cave in Asturias, Northern Spain, with that of NeaNderthals found in Spy, Belgium. What the researchers found were two remarkably different diets. The researchers note that "at Spy cave, Belgium, Neanderthal diet was heavily meat based and included woolly rhinoceros and wild sheep (mouflon), characteristic of a steppe environment. 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."

Wooly Mammoth

While the researchers note that there is evidence to back up a Neanderthal diet "as carnivorous as polar bears or wolves," the study paints a more nuanced picture—a regionalized view of the Neanderthal diet—showing remarkable differences according to where the specimens lived. The heavily forested region around El Sidrón made for excellent foraging, whereas the grassy steppes around Spy made for better hunting. The Neanderthals were simply adapting to their environments.

As Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London told NPR, "Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that Neanderthals are adapting to local conditions and varying their diets." He then notes that Neanderthals found living near the coast of Gibraltar on Spain's southern coast were collecting and baking mollusks for sustencance—adapting to the accessible protein of their region.

What's this about kissing Neanderthals?

Our ancestors, the Cro Magnons — however-many-times-great grandparents — were likely interbreeding with Neanderthals during their overlapping tenures on planet Earth. This is clear from the existence of Neanderthal alleles—genetic variations—in the Eurasian genome. But the study found microbes in the Neanderthal plaque that came from early humans. As Laura Weyrich, one of the study's sponsors told NPR, "A lot of these breeding interactions had been thought to be rough interactions, something that wouldn't be sensual or enjoyable." However, the microbe swapping "suggests that there's kissing — or at least food sharing — going on between these two groups. So we really think that those interactions were probably more friendly, and much more intimate, than what anyone ever imagined before."

Does this impact how we should be eating today?

Wheat in Field

Some folks think so. The popular Paleo diet is exclusively dedicated to eating only what our prehistoric ancestors ate. As the organizers behind the diet write on their website, "The foods that agriculture brought us (cereals, dairy products, fatty meats, salted foods, and refined sugars and oils) are disastrous for our Stone Age bodies – bodies that are ideally adapted to a fare of lean meats, fresh fruits and veggies." The logic behind the diet basically suggests that human beings are not designed to break down grains like bread, pasta, or sugar—our bodies don't know how to process those chemical compounds. We simply didn't evolve to eat that way.

Of course, the jury is very much still out on eating like our ancestors did.

While neither of the Neanderthal populations were able to eat grains—they would have had to invent farming first, the next question—one which the study doesn't attempt to answer—is whether the vegetarian Neanderthals were healthier than their more carnivorous counterparts up north—or vice versa. While the Paleo diet recommends its adherents eat exclusively meat and plants, there has been, up until now, very little archaeoloigcal evidence to support a specific ratio between the two. As Professor Keith Dobney, one of the study's authors told ATTN:, "the simple no, we don't have evidence to suggest El Sidrón individuals were healthier due to their low meat diet." Perhaps future comparisons between vegetarian and omnivorous Neanderthals will shed some light on the health impacts of an all-plant diet, but for now, the evidence yields nothing conclusive.