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Neandertal Life Reconstructed One Bacterium at a Time

The complete jaw of Spy II, with small and thin dental calculus deposits that pr

The complete jaw of Spy II, with small and thin dental calculus deposits that provided usable DNA sequences. Credit: Royal Belgian Institute of Nature Sciences

By Laura Weyrich

Fossilised dental calculus is revealing that Neandertals weren’t the oafish brutes we’ve long considered them to be.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Our vision of Neandertals often includes a grunting, club-touting, beastly individual who may or may not be covered in fleas. The Neandertal is likely wearing furs from the animals it killed and is probably looking a bit confused.

But is that how Neandertals really were? New evidence from bacteria preserved on their teeth suggests otherwise.

Why Are Neandertals Portrayed as Oafs?

Decades of research have worked to unhinge this perception, but in many cases only reinforced it. Researchers assumed that the Neandertal diet would be a healthy mixture of meat and gathered food items, but when they used isotopes to examine the major food groups for Neandertals, the results suggested they were as carnivorous as polar bears! When researchers looked at artifacts to learn more about their daily lives, they found tools used for hunting large game, further suggesting that Neandertals were running around with spears, clubs and fur cloaks. Other research also suggested that they may have been cannibals, which painted a picture of a mean, oafish lifestyle.

Despite these decades of research, this is the equivalent of saying that we know all humans today because we know they ate meat, carried cell phones and wore blue jeans. This shows almost nothing about how humans live their daily lives, and says absolutely nothing about their culture, beliefs or...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.