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Delving into the microbiome of Neanderthals

An international research group led by the University of Bologna have analysed the microbiome of Neanderthals and found bacteria that could be helping our health today.


Over the last decade, microbiome research has sky-rocketed – providing us with insights into the crucial role our gut microbiome plays in human biology. Consequently, our newly developed understanding has sparked interest in incorporating the gut microbiome into our evolutionary history. It is hoped that these insights will give us a unique perspective that will improve our knowledge of gut microbiome assembly and interactions with the human host.

To-date, ancestral configuration of the human gut microbiome has typically come from microbiome data from contemporary populations, e.g., the Hadza hunter-gatherers from Tanzania. However, as this research involves modern populations, no direct information on the ancient human gut microbiome structure can actually be provided. Ancient DNA (aDNA) analysis is emerging as an attractive and reliable alternative to directly investigate microbial ecology of our ancestors. Researchers have been investigating aDNA using stool samples due to its wide acceptance as a proxy of the gut microbiome structure. Yet, until now, palaeofaecal samples older than 8,000 years have never been analysed.

Gut microbiome of Neanderthals

In this study, published in Communications Biology, researchers searched for human gut microbiome components in aDNA from 14 archaeological sediments spanning four stratigraphic units of El Salt Middle Palaeolithic site (Spain). More specifically, they analysed aDNA extracted from 50,000-year-old sedimentary faeces.

The team identified bacterial genera belonging to families known to be part of the modern human gut microbiome. This demonstrates that these ancient micro-organisms populated the intestine of our species before the separation between Sapiens and Neanderthals around 700,000 years ago. The team also discovered well-known beneficial gut commensals, including Blautia, Dorea, Roseburia, Ruminococcus, Faecalibacterium and Bifidobacterium. This finding confirms the researchers’ hypothesis regarding the recent depletion of these components in the human gut microbiota due to our modern life.

Alongside this loss of bacterial diversity in modern humans, we are also seeing a rise in dysbiosis-related autoimmune and inflammatory disorders. It is possible that in the future, therapeutic applications, such as next-generation probiotics and prebiotics, may act as interventions to favour the retention of beneficial commensals.

Marco Candela, Professor of the Department of Pharmacy and Biotechnology of the University of Bologna, stated:

“In the current modernisation scenario, in which there is a progressive reduction of microbiota diversity, this information could guide integrated diet- and lifestyle-tailored strategies to safeguard the micro-organisms that are fundamental to our health.

To this end, promoting lifestyles that are sustainable for our gut microbiota is of the utmost importance, as it will help maintain the configurations that are compatible with our biology.”

Image credit: By ChrisChrisW –

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