Ancient Apothecary

Neanderthal Blog 10.3.17If you are a regular reader of Nature Matters you may remember an article I wrote back in April 2016. It was all about how scientists looking at Neanderthals’ teeth had made some pretty remarkable discoveries. They found that our closest relatives looked after their elders and used primitive medicines. But further research, published in the journal Nature, has now found that they were more advanced than we thought.

The earlier study discovered that Neanderthals ate both yarrow and camomile. Nothing remarkable about that you might think, but neither of these plants has much nutritional value. However, camomile can settle upset stomachs and yarrow is a pain killer. This, in itself, was only slightly impressive as many animals, from insects to birds, do something similar. What is amazing about the new research is that we’ve found that Neanderthals used antibiotics, 40 millennia before we discovered these drugs!

The study looked at dental tartar in specimens who lived 40,000 years ago. One unfortunate individual was found to be suffering from two conditions – a painful abscess on his gums and a parasite in his intestines. Both would have been unpleasant and it seems that he was taking medicine to ease his suffering. Which ones? Penicillin and aspirin.

Penicillin is a type of mould and was the wonder drug of the 20th Century. Discovered in 1928 by the Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming, it proved effective against previously fatal bacterial infections. It would have helped to treat our Aspirin-10.3.17friend’s abscess and traces of it were found on his teeth suggesting that Neanderthals knew its properties.

Aspirin is not quite as new a drug as penicillin. The modern medicine was discovered in 1853 by the French chemist Charles Gerhardt. It is derived from the leaves of the willow tree which were known to relieve pain as far back as 400 BC. In fact the father of medicine, Hippocrates, was known to use them. But our Neanderthal patient seems to have known too. Traces of willow, a deadly poison if eaten to excess, were also found on his teeth.

Modern medicine is a wonderful thing, yet we often fall into the trap of thinking we are superior to any other species. This new research shows us that our ‘primitive’ relations could have taught us a thing or two about medicine. Perhaps we should have more respect our ancestors.

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