Studies of our ancient ancestors have found insights into their diets and possible compassion for one another.
For many years, archaeologists studied Neanderthals because they were one of our closest cousins ancestrally. Through comprehensive research, many believed that this species ate primarily meat that led to their eventual extinction. Yet, as scientists continued to study this species' fossils, it became evident that they ate far more than just other animals.
So, how did researchers discover the Neanderthal diet?
The answer is through their teeth.
Initially, anthropologists found no significance in the excess plaque covering the Neanderthals' enamel fossils. It served no purpose in sampling any DNA, so oftentimes it was brushed away and dismissed. It was only until researchers began investigating this plaque did breakthroughs in understanding the Neanderthal diet develop.
What scientists found were microfossils of plants. These fossils were of legumes, grass, and nuts that the Neanderthals apparently ate as well.
It turned out that their diets did not stop there, however. There seemed to be many obscure remains on the Neanderthals' teeth that served no nutritional value to their bodies.
Which brought another question to researchers: If these additional foods did not benefit the Neanderthals nutritionally, then why did they eat them?
Two plants were found on the teeth: camomile and yarrow. Neither of them was tasty nor nutritional in any sense, but they did contain medicinal properties that eased both tooth and stomachaches. This fascinated scientists as such a decision to eat healing plants served to characterize the Neanderthals' intelligence for solving their problems.
The Neanderthals were resourceful and accustomed to the environment they lived in. They must have been extremely knowledgeable in what types of plants they could consume since they had to be aware of poisonous species that could otherwise harm them.
Yet, Neanderthals had no access to chemical testing to separate the good from the bad, so how did they do it? How did they know which plants were safe to eat and which were not?
Well, toxins within harmful vegetation tend to taste bitter. By using this method, researchers believe that Neanderthals could distinguish the safe medicinal herbs from the harmful ones by avoiding bitter foods altogether.
Another example of the Neanderthals' consuming the nature around them is conifer wood.
Conifer wood is not edible; however, there were many traces of it left on Neanderthal teeth. The wood did have limited antibacterial properties, but they were not particularly useful. Additionally, conifer was found primarily on female Neanderthal teeth compared to males.
This observation opened a new door for the function of teeth in the ancestral world.
An alternative purpose of the teeth for ancient primates was carrying objects. Essentially, this meant that the teeth were a third hand that was useful in allowing each individual to transport many things at once. This function said many things about the societal structure of these ancient relatives that suggested females were a part of the labor group involved in carrying materials used for shelter. Such a reason would explain why more female Neanderthal fossils contained conifer residue.
After comparing these results with modern human teeth, researchers have come to another intriguing outcome.
Neanderthals appeared to have healthier teeth than humans.
Though this species had no access to toothbrushes nor powerful technology to strengthen their enamel, they had healthier-looking teeth.
In several fossils, scientists have found many intact sets of teeth in addition to many sets of missing teeth in adult, Neanderthal skeletons. However, teeth were essential for the survival of primates back then. If they did not have their teeth, then they died prematurely due to their inability to process food.
Yet, these skeletons that were missing teeth happened to be grown adults.
So, how did they survive long enough to become adults without teeth?
While it is possible these individuals lost their teeth as they grew older, many researchers find that it is also possible for them to have received ground up food from their relatives to survive. The remains of these skeletons missing their teeth provide evidence for this potential compassion demonstrated by the Neanderthals, but further investigation is needed.
Ultimately, a lot remains unknown about our cousin primates, but we have gained some substantial ground in better understanding their ways of life.
Some discoveries came from the smallest evidence, but in anthropology, such a phenomenon is common.
And in this case, one of the smallest types of fossils led to some of the grandest conclusions.