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Emerging evidence from research conducted at the University of Adelaide suggest that Neanderthals may have self-medicated, using ‘naturally occurring painkillers and antibiotics’. These findings have come from DNA analysis of bacteria and food remains found in the dental calculus of Neanderthal specimens from Belgium and Spain.

One of the Neanderthal specimens from Spain was found to have had a large dental abscess as well as a parasite in his system that may have made him unwell. In the dental calculus of the sick specimen, researchers found traces of plants and fungi with known anti-inflammatory and pain killing properties, including the mould that contains the Penicillium fungus used in Penicillin. These studies suggest that Neanderthals may have ingested plants and fungi to self-medicate against ailments. Whilst we cannot know for sure whether this Neanderthal was deliberately ingesting substances with anti-inflammatory properties, it is interesting food for thought. Moreover, the second specimen from Spain, who is thought to have been in good health, did not have the Penicillium fungus in his dental calculus.

Archaeology and Anthropology applicants may want to think about the ways in which research about the diets of Neanderthals can provide evidence for a richer understanding of their social lives. Biological Sciences applicants could spend time considering the consequences of the ingestion of mycotoxins, found in some strains of Penicillium, by Neanderthals.  

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