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Some Neanderthals Were Vegetarian — And They Likely Kissed Our Human Ancestors

March 8, 20177:11 PM ET

A new study of the dental plaques of three Neanderthals reveals surprising facts about their lives, including what they ate, the diseases that ailed them and how they self-medicated (and smooched). (Above) An illustration of Neanderthals in Spain shows them preparing to eat plants and mushrooms.

Courtesy of Abel Grau/Comunicación CSIC

Now, it’s no surprise that Neanderthals didn’t brush their teeth. Nor did they go to the dentist.

That means bits of food and the microbes in their mouths just stayed stuck to their teeth. While not so good for dental hygiene, these dental plaques are a great resource for scientists interested in understanding more about Neanderthal diet and lifestyle.

Luckily for researchers, there is an abundance of Neanderthal teeth in the fossil record. “We have complete jaws with teeth, we have upper jaws with skulls with teeth intact, isolated teeth,” says Keith Dobney, an archaeologist at the University of Liverpool.

He and his colleagues have been studying Neanderthal dental plaques — or rather, the hardened version of plaque, tartar, or what scientists call dental calculus. They scraped off some of the calculus and analyzed the DNA that was preserved in it for clues to what the Neanderthals ate.

They looked at plaques from the teeth of three Neanderthals living in Europe about 50,000 years ago. One individual was from a cave in Spy, Belgium, and the other two were from El Sidrón cave in Spain.

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The Spy Cave site in Belgium from which several Neanderthal skeletons were excavated in 1886. Only one skeleton was used in this study.

Courtesy of Royal Belgian Institute of Nature Sciences

The researchers also found evidence of mushrooms, but this was certainly a meat lover. This isn’t that surprising to scientists who study Neanderthal diets. After all, the butchered bones of woolly rhinos, mammoths, horses and reindeer had been found in the Spy cave and other sites, suggesting a meat-heavy diet.

There had also been other indirect sources of evidence of carnivory, like high levels of a certain nitrogen isotopes, which suggested meat- and/or mushroom-heavy diets.

“Most Neanderthals that had been analyzed [before] were really heavy meat eaters,” says Laura Weyrich, at the Australian Center for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide, Australia, and the lead author on the new study. She says those previous studies had suggested that “Neanderthals were as carnivorous as polar bears.”

And this is where the new study offered a big surprise. According to the DNA in dental plaques, the Neanderthals in Spain ate no meat at all.

“We find things like pine nuts, moss, tree barks and even mushrooms as well,” says Weyrich. “It is very indicative of a vegetarian diet, probably the true Paleo diet.” (Not all of the region’s Neanderthals were necessarily vegetarians: The El Sidrón cave also contained grisly evidence of cannibalism.)

She says the difference in diets reflects the fact that the two groups lived in two very different environments.

Northern Europe, including Belgium, had wide open spaces with grasslands and many mammals. “It would have been very grassy, and kind of mountainous,” says Weyrich. “You can imagine a big woolly rhino wandering through the grass there.” Perhaps tracked by hungry Neanderthals looking for dinner.

But farther south in Spain, the Neanderthals lived in dense forests. “It’s hard to imagine a big woolly rhino trying to wedge themselves between the trees,” says Weyrich. And so, she says the Neanderthals there feasted on all kinds of plants and mushrooms. “They’re very opportunistic, trying to find anything that’s edible in their environment.”

“Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Neanderthals are adapting to local conditions and varying their diets,” says Chris Stringer at the Natural History Museum in London. He studies human origins, but wasn’t involved in the new study.

For example, Neanderthals living on the coast of Gibraltar “were collecting molluscs and baking them,” he says. “They were butchering at least one seal. There [was] dolphin material at the site. That may have been stranded dolphin that they scavenged.”

The complete jaw of a Neanderthal individual found in Spy, Belgium. Small and thin tartar deposits provided the researchers with enough DNA sequences to study.

Courtesy of Royal Belgian Institute of Nature Sciences

Stringer says it was the Neanderthals’ adaptability that allowed them to thrive for tens of thousands of years across Europe and Asia.

“They were very evolved humans,” he says. “They lived over a range of very different environments. They lived in different climatic conditions.”

But Stringer cautions that the new study’s findings probably don’t reflect everything about the diets of these Neanderthals. “Not everything that you eat has an equal chance of getting incorporated into the calculus,” he says. “And not everything has a chance of being preserved long term.”

Perhaps more surprising than the clues about diets is what the DNA revealed about other aspects of Neanderthal life. The scientists uncovered the identities of more than 200 different species of microbes that lived in the mouths of these Neanderthals. It also gave clues to some diseases that might have ailed them.

One of the individuals in Spain seems to have had a painful tooth abscess and was suffering from a stomach bug. “We saw that he also had Microsporidia, which is a gastrointestinal pathogen,” says Weyrich.

That means he probably had diarrhea and was throwing up. “He was a sick individual,” says Weyrich. “He was a young adolescent male. He was mostly with … females. So we like to think of him as this sick boy that the females were dragging along with them.”

But what’s more remarkable, she says, is that DNA in his dental plaque suggests he was self-medicating by eating the bark of poplar trees. “And poplar bark contains salicylic acid, one of the natural sources of what we call aspirin,” she says.

Even more surprising was that they also found evidence of Penicillium in his plaque. That’s the mold that makes the antibiotic penicillin. “It’s pretty phenomenal that these guys were so in tune with their environment and to know what was going on and how to treat things,” says Weyrich.

Enlarge this image

A dental calculus deposit is visible on the rear molar (right). The teeth belong to the sick boy in the Spanish cave. He was eating poplar, a source of aspirin, and vegetation with mold, including the fungus Penicillium, which is the source of the antibiotic penicillin.

Courtesy of Paleoanthropology Group MNCN-CSIC

But the surprises didn’t end there. Weyrich and her colleagues also identified the DNA of a microbe that causes gum disease in humans today. “We were able to track back that this particular microorganism was actually obtained from humans, likely about 120,000 years ago.” Weyrich and her colleagues don’t believe the microbe caused disease in Neanderthals, but they think it tells a fascinating story about how the two species — our ancestors and Neanderthals — interacted.

Genetics has shown that the two interbred and swapped genes. “A lot of these breeding interactions had been thought to be rough interactions, something that wouldn’t be sensual or enjoyable,” says Weyrich. But if they were swapping microbes in their mouths, that suggests a different story: “It 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.”

Weyrich and her colleagues think that in the years to come, we will learn a lot more about Neanderthals and other human ancestors, just by studying the ancient DNA trapped in their dental plaques.

“It’s a very exciting paper,” says Jean-Jacques Hublin at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, who was not involved in the new study. “It opens a new window into the past, a new way to investigate [the] life and behavior of Neanderthals.”

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Bronze sword, gold-decorated spearhead unearthed at Scottish construction site

Lifting the Bronze Age sword (© GUARD Archaeology Ltd).

Lifting the Bronze Age sword (© GUARD Archaeology Ltd).

Archaeologists in Scotland have unearthed a hoard of stunning prehistoric artifacts, including a bronze sword and rare gold-decorated spearhead.

The trove was found prior to the construction of two soccer fields in Carnoustie by experts from GUARD Archaeology, working on behalf of the local government. A spokesman for  GUARD Archaeology told Fox News that excavations at the site have just finished.

The artifacts, which date to around 1,000 B.C. to 800 BC, have delighted archaeologists. “It is very unusual to recover such artefacts in a modern archaeological excavation, which can reveal so much about the context of its burial,”said GUARD Archaeology Project Officer Alan Hunter, who directed the excavation, in a statement.

 

The excavation site contains a host of archaeological features, including 12 circular houses that probably date the Bronze Age, as well as two halls likely dating to the Neolithic period, one of which is the largest of its type ever found in Scotland, estimated to be 6,000 years old. Clusters of large pits were also discovered, one of which contained the haul of metalwork.

In addition to the bronze spearhead and sword, archaeologists also found a lead and tin pommel from the end of a sword’s hilt, a bronze scabbard mount and chape (the metal point of a scabbard), and a bronze pin.

Archaeologists say that the spearhead’s gold ornament is particularly noteworthy, with the precious metal likely used to enhance the weapon’s visual impact.

The Carnoustie excavation also unearthed rare organic remains, such as a wooden scabbard that encased the sword blade, fur skin around the spearhead and textile around the pin and scabbard.

‘Organic evidence like Bronze Age wooden scabbards rarely survive on dryland sites so this just underlines how extraordinary these finds are,’ said GUARD Project Officer, Beth Spence, in the statement.

Because the remains discovered at Carnoustie are so fragile, archaeologists removed the entire pit and its surrounding subsoil and transported it to GUARD Archaeology’s lab, where it was CT scanned and X-rayed by the School of Veterinary Medicine at Glasgow University. Scan and X-ray data helped experts remove the artifacts from the block of soil. The bronze sword, pin, and scabbard fittings were unearthed near the spearhead.

This is just the latest fascinating archaeological discovery in Scotland. Experts, for example, have spent the last few years piecing together the history of a long-lost early medieval kingdom in southern Scotland.

Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers

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Biologists find weird cave life that may be 50,000 years old

  • FILE - In this July 3, 2008, file photo, New Mexico Tech professor Penny Boston crawls through the Mud Turtle Passage on the way to the Snowy River formation during an expedition in Fort Stanton Cave, N.M. Boston, who discovered extreme life in New Mexico caves in 2008, presented new findings on Friday, Feb. 17, 2017 of microbes trapped in crystals in Mexico that could be 50,000 years old. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

    FILE – In this July 3, 2008, file photo, New Mexico Tech professor Penny Boston crawls through the Mud Turtle Passage on the way to the Snowy River formation during an expedition in Fort Stanton Cave, N.M. Boston, who discovered extreme life in New Mexico caves in 2008, presented new findings on Friday, Feb. 17, 2017 of microbes trapped in crystals in Mexico that could be 50,000 years old. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)  (The Associated Press)

In a Mexican cave system so beautiful and hot that it is called both Fairyland and hell, scientists have discovered life trapped in crystals that could be 50,000 years old.

The bizarre and ancient microbes were found dormant in caves in Naica, Mexico, and were able to exist by living on minerals such as iron and manganese, said Penelope Boston, head of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute.

“It’s super life,” said Boston, who presented the discovery Friday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Boston.

If confirmed, the find is yet another example of how microbes can survive in extremely punishing conditions on Earth.

Though it was presented at a science conference and was the result of nine years of work, the findings haven’t yet been published in a scientific journal and haven’t been peer reviewed. Boston planned more genetic tests for the microbes she revived both in the lab and on site.

The life forms — 40 different strains of microbes and even some viruses — are so weird that their nearest relatives are still 10 percent different genetically. That makes their closest relative still pretty far away, about as far away as humans are from mushrooms, Boston said.

The Naica caves — an abandoned lead and zinc mine — are half a mile (800 meters) deep. Before drilling occurred by a mine company, the mines had been completely cut off from the outside world. Some were as vast as cathedrals with crystals lining the iron walls. They were also so hot that scientists had to don cheap versions of space suits — to prevent contamination with outside life — and had ice packs all over their bodies.

Boston said the team could only work about 20 minutes at a time before ducking to a “cool” room that was about 100 degrees (38 Celsius).

NASA wouldn’t allow Boston to share her work for outside review before Friday’s announcement so scientists couldn’t say much. But University of South Florida biologist Norine Noonan, who wasn’t part of the study but was on a panel where Boston presented her work, said it made sense.

“Why are we surprised?” Noonan said. “As a biologist I would say life on Earth is extremely tough and extremely versatile.”

This isn’t the oldest extreme life. Several years ago, a different group of scientists published studies about microbes that may be half a million years old and still alive. Those were trapped in ice and salt, which isn’t quite the same as rock or crystal, Boston said.

The age of the Naica microbes was determined by outside experts who looked at where the microbes were located in the crystals and how fast those crystals grow.

It’s not the only weird life Boston is examining. She is also studying microbes commonly found in caves in the United States, Ukraine and elsewhere that eat copper sulfate and seem to be close to indestructible.

“It’s simply another illustration of just how completely tough Earth life is,” Boston said.

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New discovery fills gap in ancient Jerusalem history

DIGGING HISTORY

New discovery fills gap in ancient Jerusalem history

Archaeologists think construction on this ancient building started in the early second century B.C. and continued into the Hasmonean period.

Archaeologists think construction on this ancient building started in the early second century B.C. and continued into the Hasmonean period.  (Israeli Antiquities Authority)

Archaeologists have discovered the first ruins of a building from the Hasmonean period in Jerusalem, filling a gap in the ancient city’s history, the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced.

The building’s remains were uncovered during an extensive dig at the Givati Parking Lot, located in Jerusalem’s oldest neighborhood, the City of David. Excavations over several years at the site have turned up some remarkable finds, including a building from the Second Temple period that may have belonged to Queen Helene, a trove of coins from the Byzantine period, and recently, a 1,700-year-old curse tablet in the ruins of a Roman mansion.

Despite extensive excavations in Jerusalem, IAA archaeologists Doron Ben Ami and Yana Tchekhanovets said there has been an absence of buildings from the Hasmonean period in the city’s archaeological record. Simon Maccabeus founded the Hasmonean dynasty in 140 B.C. This group ruled Judea until 37 B.C., when Herod the Great came into power. [In Photos: The Controversial ‘Tomb of Herod the Great’]

“Apart from several remains of the city’s fortifications that were discovered in different parts of Jerusalem, as well as pottery and other small finds, none of the Hasmonean city’s buildings have been uncovered so far, and this discovery bridges a certain gap in Jerusalem’s settlement sequence,” excavators Doron Ben Ami and Yana Tchekhanovets said in a statement. “The Hasmonean city, which is well-known to us from the historical descriptions that appear in the works of Josephus, has suddenly acquired tangible expression.”

Flavius Josephus recounted Jewish history and the Jewish revolt against the Romans in his first century A.D. books “The Jewish War” and “Antiquities of the Jews.” Some archaeologists have used his texts to guide their work and interpretations. For example, excavators who recently found cooking pots and a lamp in an underground chamber in Jerusalem think these objects could be material evidence of Josephus’ account of famine during the Roman siege of the city.

IAA officials said the Hasmonean building has only come to light in recent months, adding that the structure boasts quite impressive dimensions. It rises 13 feet (4 meters) and covers 688 square feet (64 square meters) with limestone walls more than 3 feet (1 m) thick.

Inside, the excavators found pottery and coins, the latter of which helped them determine the age of the building. IAA researchers think construction on the building began in the early second century B.C. and continued into the Hasmonean period, when the most significant changes were made inside the structure.

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Archaeologists find rare writing, and then it vanishes

RareInscription.jpg

Inscriptions on the walls of the ritual bath. (Shai Halevy, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

Archaeologists digging for ruins ahead of a new construction project in Jerusalem made an incredible discovery—that immediately began to vanish. During the last hours of a “salvage excavation” two months ago, the Israel Antiquities Authority stumbled upon a 2,000-year-old ritual bath when a stone suddenly disappeared into a black hole, reports Haaretz.

That hole turned out to be the remains of the bath, accessible by a stone staircase, which includes an anteroom with benches and a winepress. Carved into a natural stone cave, the bath itself wasn’t so unusual, but the graffiti that covered the plaster walls was.

Archaeologists were therefore horrified to find the Aramaic inscriptions and paintings in mud and soot, dating to the Second Temple era from 530BC to 70AD, per Discovery News, disappearing within hours of their discovery.

“The wall paintings are so sensitive that their exposure to the air causes damage to them,” the IAA says, per Ynetnews. Crews quickly removed and sealed the plaster so the graffiti, along with a few carvings, can be preserved.

Archaeologists say the Aramaic inscriptions are particularly special as few such writings have been found, though the script is hardly legible now. They guess at a few words, including what translates to “served” and the name “Cohen.” Still, the inscriptions back up the argument that Aramaic was commonly used at the time and perhaps even the language of Jesus.

The plaster also holds drawings of a boat, palm trees and other plants, and what might be a menorah—portrayals of which were then considered taboo. An IAA rep says graffiti in baths may have been “common, but not usually preserved.” (Another recent find: the remnants of a “treasured landmark” destroyed by the Nazis.)

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New discovery fills gap in ancient Jerusalem history

hasmonean-walls

Archaeologists think construction on this ancient building started in the early second century B.C. and continued into the Hasmonean period. (Israeli Antiquities Authority)

Archaeologists have discovered the first ruins of a building from the Hasmonean period in Jerusalem, filling a gap in the ancient city’s history, the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced.

The building’s remains were uncovered during an extensive dig at the Givati Parking Lot, located in Jerusalem’s oldest neighborhood, the City of David. Excavations over several years at the site have turned up some remarkable finds, including a building from the Second Temple period that may have belonged to Queen Helene, a trove of coins from the Byzantine period, and recently, a 1,700-year-old curse tablet in the ruins of a Roman mansion.

Despite extensive excavations in Jerusalem, IAA archaeologists Doron Ben Ami and Yana Tchekhanovets said there has been an absence of buildings from the Hasmonean period in the city’s archaeological record. Simon Maccabeus founded the Hasmonean dynasty in 140 B.C. This group ruled Judea until 37 B.C., when Herod the Great came into power. [In Photos: The Controversial ‘Tomb of Herod the Great’]

“Apart from several remains of the city’s fortifications that were discovered in different parts of Jerusalem, as well as pottery and other small finds, none of the Hasmonean city’s buildings have been uncovered so far, and this discovery bridges a certain gap in Jerusalem’s settlement sequence,” excavators Doron Ben Ami and Yana Tchekhanovets said in a statement. “The Hasmonean city, which is well-known to us from the historical descriptions that appear in the works of Josephus, has suddenly acquired tangible expression.”

Flavius Josephus recounted Jewish history and the Jewish revolt against the Romans in his first century A.D. books “The Jewish War” and “Antiquities of the Jews.” Some archaeologists have used his texts to guide their work and interpretations. For example, excavators who recently found cooking pots and a lamp in an underground chamber in Jerusalem think these objects could be material evidence of Josephus’ account of famine during the Roman siege of the city.

IAA officials said the Hasmonean building has only come to light in recent months, adding that the structure boasts quite impressive dimensions. It rises 13 feet (4 meters) and covers 688 square feet (64 square meters) with limestone walls more than 3 feet (1 m) thick.

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These would make a big omelette! Chinese roadworkers unearth nest of FORTY-THREE fossilised dinosaur eggs

  • Fossils found as workman laid sewage pipe on major road
  • One man tried to steal two eggs but was stopped in his tracks
  • He fled as passers-by formed human chain to protect archaeological site 
  • Experts are not working to determine what type of dinosaur laid them  

A giant clutch of 43 fossilised dinosaur eggs were discovered by workmen doing roadworks in China.

The egg-straordinary find was made in the city centre of Heyuan, south-east China, by workman laying a sewage pipe.

The giant fossils, which included 19 eggs that are fully intact, were the first to be found in the city and are now being studied by experts from the Heyuan Dinosaur Museum, to determine the type, the People’s Daily Online reports.

Egg-straordinary find: Workers point to the dinosaur eggs that were discovered as they were fitting a new sewage pipe in Heyuan, south-east China

Egg-straordinary find: Workers point to the dinosaur eggs that were discovered as they were fitting a new sewage pipe in Heyuan, south-east China

Each range from 10 to 12 centimetres in diameter and have been well preserved by the red sandstone beds in the area.

Passers-by then formed a human chain to protect the site until police came and the artifacts were taken away for examination.

Unexpected: Crowds gather as a construction worker handles the red sandstone containing the fossils

Unexpected: Crowds gather as a construction worker handles the red sandstone containing the fossils

Egg box: The fossilised dinosaur eggs are carefully removed from the site and taken to the local museum for examination

Egg box: The fossilised dinosaur eggs are carefully removed from the site and taken to the local museum for examination

Head curator Du Yanli said: ‘There are fossilised dinosaur eggs everywhere in the red sandstone layer but they were never found because the city was built on top of the layers.

‘With the recent road and sewage system upgrade, the red sandstone layer is being exposed and has led to the discovery of the fossils’.

The Heyuan Dinosaur Museum said that more than seventeen thousand fossilised dinosaur eggs have been found in China since the first discovery in 1996.

Carefully done: A workman examines the fossils that have been preserved by the red sandstone 

Carefully done: A workman examines the fossils that have been preserved by the red sandstone

A total of 43 dinosaur eggs, 19 of which were unbroken, were found during the roadworks in Heyuan, south-east China
A total of 43 dinosaur eggs, 19 of which were unbroken, were found during the roadworks in Heyuan, south-east China

Big batch: A total of 43 dinosaur eggs, 19 of which were unbroken, were found during the roadworks in Heyuan, south-east China

The museum prides itself for having the largest fossilised dinosaur eggs collection in the world.

Heyuan has now dubbed itself as China’s ‘home of dinosaurs’.

Work has temporarily halted as a 1.3 square kilometre dinosaur fossil and geological protected zone is set up in the area for further scientific research.

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