Cannibalism might be one reason Neanderthals died of diseases today

In 2013, University of Birmingham archaeologist Richard Buchanan was in England watching a TV show on meat cooking and disaster recipes when he says he had a “mind-blowing” moment. It was during an episode of “Meet the Romans” in which a cow was shown being slaughtered.

“There was this extraordinary moment of just pure relief. I literally jumped off the sofa, I was so relieved,” he said. “The irony is that after eating the meat, I knew exactly what the disease was that was potentially going to kill us all that night.”

Then it hit him. “This is like the plague,” he recalled thinking, “and it’s here, and it’s just got me.”

Buchanan and his colleagues dug up the bone-marrow harvests of Neanderthals — a prehistoric group of people from what is now Eastern Europe — and did a genetic analysis to see how their DNA was affected by cannibalism. They found this ancient disease spillover in human skeletons, and initially they thought it might be streptospirosis, a disease transmitted by mosquitoes. But that wasn’t the case.

The cause was bacteria from the septic system of a dish that had sickened several ancient people in the cave where the cemetery was dug. (The museum said the people were probably killed in a plague that wiped out most of the Neanderthals, so the deaths are believed to have occurred sometime between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago.)

In those Neanderthal men, the researchers found bacteriophages, a type of bacterial infection spread by humans, that attacks the intestines and can cause strepto. One bacteriophage was identical to the one that killed two Northern German teenagers who ate a raw meat dish in 1990. And another was identical to the bacteriophage that went a step further, attacking the intestines and causing hydrops that turned into peritonitis and sepsis.

The researchers also found that the number of infection-causing bacteria was up sharply, from 12 percent of the bacteria in disease samples in Neanderthal DNA samples to 34 percent of the bacteria in disease samples in Neanderthal DNA samples.

“This is an entirely unexpected finding,” said Tong Li, a scientist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History who was not part of the research team. “Usually, healthy Neanderthals did not get sick, they just weren’t able to grow enough to keep themselves alive.”

Buchanan described the finding as being part of a new evolutionary model. During the last 5,000 years, more Neanderthals were killed by plague than any other pathogen in history. A lethal one came along in 2010, signaling the beginning of the group’s death by disease.

“This disease is very infectious, very lethal, and yet is essentially completely out of the Neanderthal repertoire,” Buchanan said. “It had to infect humans. Neanderthals just weren’t good at this kind of thing.”

The researchers also reported in the journal Nature Microbiology that the burrowing bacteria colonized the feces of those who died, and caused infection in adult women in a match group.

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