Science & Technology

Does Neanderthal Teeth and Diet Have Any Connection?

Posted by Sonnet Gomes

Wait, did I hear this right? Neanderthal teeth and diet have a connection. Just because Neanderthals ate meat doesn’t mean they only gorged on it. In fact, a study looking into bacteria from human ancestor’s teeth (probably you) shows that our close cousins consumed large amounts of root vegetables. The diet includes potatoes and sweet potatoes, which have been linked with their increased brain function!

Neanderthal Diet Book Includes Cooking

Harvard University evolutionary biologist Rachel Carmody says the study is “groundbreaking.” It suggests human and Neanderthal ancestors were cooking lots of starchy foods at least 600,000 years ago. And they had already adapted to eating more starch plants long before agriculture was invented 10,000 years ago too!

Makes you wonder what other kinds of secrets are still being uncovered by scientists today huh?

It’s been a long time since our ancestors were grunting around in the woods. In fact, it turns out that their brains doubled in size between 2 million and 700,000 years ago! Was it due to better stone tools or cooperative hunting?

Neanderthal Diet Recipes Contain Only Meat?

As early humans got more skilled at killing animals and processing meat, they ate much higher quality diets rich in protein. The researchers used to believe it gave them extra energy quickly so their hungry brains could grow bigger fast.

There’s a lot of new research on how humans were able to grow larger brains. Scientists have theorized that meat was the answer. However, Christina Warinner, a molecular archaeologist from Harvard University, has some doubts about this theory.

“For human ancestors to efficiently grow a bigger brain, they needed energy-dense foods containing glucose—a type of sugar,” says Ms. Warinner. She also adds, ” Meat is not really good source or food full of glucose.”

Warinner and a large international team study the DNA from bacteria in tooth plaque to see what they can learn about ancient human ancestors. They analyzed oral bacteria stuck to teeth belonging to Neanderthals, chimps, gorillas, and howler monkeys.

Chimps and gorillas both eat less starch but have similar diets because they live near each other. On the contrary, howler monkeys only eat fruit and live on one side of Panama. And they do not have any contact with any other primates for thousands of miles.

It’s all about a Tiny Bacterium

The researchers have analyzed billions of DNA fragments from long-dead bacteria still preserved on the teeth of 124 individuals. One was a Neanderthal who lived 100,000 years ago at Pešturina Cave in Serbia. And they were able to reconstruct their oral microbiome genome, which is now considered one that has been done before.

Warinner and her colleagues are seeking whether oral bacteria track changes in diet or the environment.

Scientists have found traces of rare bacteria in the mouths of ancient humans and Neanderthals. The microbe is Streptococcus salivarius. The bacterium was mainly found on the teeth, where it helped to break down sugar from carbohydrates consumed by these people.

What’s even more interesting is how this bacterial strain has been shown to thrive on human amylase but not chimpanzee enzymes. This contrast clearly showing an evolutionary adaptation for eating our foods! It shows Neanderthals and ancient modern humans were eating more starchy foods than the chimps, the researchers conclude.

Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

Neanderthal Teeth and Diet Shows a Major Shift

I love this study because it suggests that Neanderthals ate so much starch. And this habit changed the composition of their oral microbiome. It clearly shows Neanderthal teeth and diet have a connection. That’s amazing!

Why the discovery of a starch-digesting enzyme in the human mouth is so ‘groundbreaking.’ Well, it resurfaces the question of when our brains were still expanding. The amylase enzyme is more efficient at digesting cooked rather than raw starches. Thus it suggests that cooking was common around 600,000 years ago and maybe more.

One particular enzymatic protein found in our ancestor’s mouths reveals a completely different diet and cooking pattern! And this is a major shift in our traditional notion about Neanderthal diet food list.

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