Vegetarian Neanderthals Shed New Light On Human Ancestors

First Posted: Mar 10, 2017 03:20 AM EST

Studying human skulls to learn more about how ancient ancestors lived has always been the way in science. To do this, researchers had to typically scrape off and dispose the plaque that usually coated the teeth. As it turns out, these discarded things actually hold more information that could be important to science.

In The Smithsonian report, it seems that these fossilized dental plaque can say a lot about humans' late ancestors, especially their eating habits. Apparently, eating meat somehow changed people's food preferences.

Scientists have been able to recover DNA from bones for decades now. But the genetic material does not usually say much about microbiomes that ancient people lived with. Thanks to recent advances in genetic sequencing, however, as it showed new appreciations for the excretions that ancient people left behind. The dental plaques -- or hardened version of it, for instance -- showed that Neanderthals living in Spy, Belgium, about 50,000 years ago ate meat, as scientists found evidence of wooly rhino and wild sheep.

However, it seems that Neanderthals from El Sidrón, Spain, ate no meat at all. Researchers have found things like pine nuts, moss, tree barks and mushrooms in their plaque. Laura Weyrich, lead author of the stury, shared that their Spanish friends may have been vegetarians. She said that, "It is very indicative of a vegetarian diet, probably the true Paleo diet."

NPR shared that most Neanderthals that were analyzed before were heavy meat eaters, as much as polar bears are today. Of course, not all the region's Neanderthals were vegetarians. The El Sidrón caves also contained evidence of cannibalism, showing that the two groups lived in two very different environments.

Weyrich also said that for future research, fossils of other ancient humans and human ancestors should also be examined closely as these ancient dental insights can help examine today's people's own health. This is especially in the case of why humans struggle with many health issues that would have been unheard of in Neanderthal societies.

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