Scientists are thrilled to have discovered a gross buildup on a few fossilized teeth, and with reason. Not only were they able to discern the three Neanderthals' diets (two ate primarily meat, one primarily plants), they're also feasting their eyes on prehistoric microbiomes that are shedding more light on their lives. As recently as 10 to 15 years ago, scientists studying ancient teeth would routinely wipe off the plaque in their search for wear patterns on the structures of the teeth, but with modern microscopy, it's the stuff coating the teeth that reveals the most, reports National Geographic. For instance, one ancient bacterium suggests Neanderthals were kissing humans, or at least sharing food with them, reports NPR. And Neanderthals self-medicated using an early version of aspirin.
The research is "very exciting," an unaffiliated scientist says. "It opens a new window into the past." Reporting in the journal Nature, the researchers note that the vegetarian, found in present-day Spain, had a dental abscess and appeared to be chewing tree bark in an attempt to relieve pain. The telltale clue was salicylic acid, which is found in poplar bark and is the active ingredient in aspirin. What's more, the researchers think this same individual ate molds that functioned as a primitive version of penicillin, suggesting Neanderthals had a sophisticated awareness of the bacteria ailing them. Their microbiomes, largely distinct from ours, could even provide clues about which diseases ailed them, and maybe even why they died off. (Here's a new piece in the puzzle of our family tree.)