Neanderthal Tooth Plaque Hints at Meals and Kisses

Neanderthal Tooth Plaque Hints at Meals-and Kisses

Nature 08 March 2017


Summary: The plaque of teeth from Neanderthal remains discovered in  El Sidrón cave in northern Spain, which are estimated to have been from 50,000 years ago, were used to reconstruct the first microbiomes from extinct species. The researchers were able to determine their diet consisted of mushrooms and plants while Neanderthals from Spy cave ate wooly rhinoceros and mushrooms all from sequencing of the DNA from the plaque. The data also suggests that Penicillium mold was consumed along with aspirin from poplar trees to treat infections. The genetic analysis also suggests that Neanderthals and humans were kissing or sharing food as well since they both shared the same species of microbe in their mouths as modern humans. This is supported by the fact the strains did not split off until Neanderthals went extinct.

Connections: In lab we tested for some of the types of bacteria often found in the mouth using a variety of differential and selective agars. Though we were testing specifically for opportunistic pathogens, we discussed the amount of bacteria that is found in the mouth. In class we discussed the necessity and dangers of the bacteria that live in and on us and also the transfer of bacteria between people such as mother and baby. In addition, we learned about using penicillin as an antibiotic.

Critical Analysis: I found it very interesting that they could sequence DNA from such a long time ago. I thought the DNA would have degraded too much to get whole reads. It is amazing that they learned more about the social behavior of Neanderthals and humans just by the transfer of microbes. Since kissing means an intimacy during mating instead of the aggressive way they thought Neanderthals mated, the relationship between the two species is now considered different than what archaeologists previously thought.

Question: How did they track the split of the bacterial strain found in the ancient Neanderthals and humans from the same species of bacteria found in modern humans?

2 Comments for “Neanderthal Tooth Plaque Hints at Meals and Kisses”



Wow, I never thought we could get so much information simply from ancient bacteria from plaque! I agree that it is amazing that full genomic reads can be obtained from such an old sample. Even in class, we prepared the isolates pretty well for sequencing and we still had many people that had low read counts. The fact that we can identify the bacteria and then draw conclusions from that about things from 50,000 years ago is amazing.



This is so cool! It kind of makes me want to brush my teeth… But still interesting! It’s crazy that technology today is able to obtain plaque that is 50,000 years old. Not only that, but they were able to determine exactly what they ate and what region it came from. In lab I was having trouble isolating my bacteria that a was a couple of weeks old. Also, i wonder how they knew so long ago to find and take something similar to Penicillin and Aspirin to treat infections. I guess we’ve always been an intuitive species!