• Press Release

Researchers Discover Earliest Recorded Lead Exposure in 250,000 Year-Old Neanderthal Teeth

  • New York, NY
  • (October 31, 2018)

Using evidence found in teeth from two Neanderthals from southeastern France, researchers from the Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai report the earliest evidence of lead exposure in an extinct human-like species from 250,000 years ago.

This study is the first to report lead exposure in Neanderthal and is the first to use teeth to reconstruct climate during and timing of key developmental events including weaning and nursing duration— key determinants of population growth.

Results of the study were published in Science Advances, a journal published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The international research team of biological anthropologists, archaeologists, earth scientists, and environmental exposure experts measured barium, lead and oxygen in the teeth for evidence of nursing, weaning, chemical exposure, and climate variations across the growth rings in the teeth. Elemental analysis of the teeth revealed short-term exposure to lead during cooler seasons, possibly from ingestion of contaminated food or water, or inhalation from fires containing lead.

During fetal and childhood development, a new tooth layer is formed every day. As each of these ‘growth rings’ forms, some of the many chemicals circulating in the body are captured in each layer, which provides a chronological record of exposure. The research team used lasers to sample these layers and reconstruct the past exposures along incremental markings, similar to using growth rings on a tree to determine the tree’s growth history.

This evidence allowed the team to relate the individuals’ development to ancient seasons, revealing that one Neanderthal was born in the spring, and that both Neanderthal children were more likely to be sick during colder periods. The findings are consistent with mammals’ pattern of bearing offspring during periods of increased food availability.  The nursing duration of 2.5 years in one individual is similar to the average age of weaning in preindustrial human populations. The researchers note they can’t make broad generalizations about Neanderthals due to the small study size, but that their research methods offer a new approach to answering questions about long extinct species.

“Traditionally, people thought lead exposure occurred in populations only after industrialization, but these results show it happened prehistorically, before lead had been widely released into the environment,” said one of the study’s lead authors, Christine Austin, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “Our team plans to analyze more teeth from our ancestors and investigate how lead exposures may have affected their health and how that may relate to how our bodies respond to lead today.”

“Dietary patterns in our early life have far reaching consequences for our health, and by understanding how breastfeeding evolved we can help guide the current population on what is good breastfeeding practice,” said Manish Arora PhD, BDS, MPH, Professor and Vice Chairman Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine. “Our research team is working on applying these techniques in contemporary populations to study how breastfeeding alters health trajectories including those of neurodevelopment, cardiac health and other high priority health outcomes.”

“This study reports a major breakthrough in the reconstruction of ancient climates, a significant factor in human evolution, as temperature and precipitation cycles influenced the landscapes and food resources our ancestors relied on,” said the study’s lead author Tanya Smith, PhD, Associate Professor at Griffith University.

Other key authors on the study include Daniel Green of the Forsyth Institute and Renaud Joannes-Boyau of Southern Cross University in Australia. Other institutions involved in this study include New York University, Harvard University, Australian National University, and Institut de Palentologie Humaine in France.

About The Institute for Exposomic Research

The Institute for Exposomic Research at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai is the world’s first research institute devoted to the intensive study of the exposome, or the totality of environmental influences on human health. The mission of the Institute is to understand how the complex mix of nutritional, chemical, and social environments affect health, disease, and development later in life and to translate those findings into new strategies for prevention and treatment. For more information, visit http://icahn.mssm.edu/exposomics.


About the Mount Sinai Health System

The Mount Sinai Health System is New York City's largest integrated delivery system encompassing seven hospital campuses, a leading medical school, and a vast network of ambulatory practices throughout the greater New York region. Mount Sinai's vision is to produce the safest care, the highest quality, the highest satisfaction, the best access and the best value of any health system in the nation. The System includes approximately 6,600 primary and specialty care physicians; 10 joint-venture ambulatory surgery centers; more than 140 ambulatory practices throughout the five boroughs of New York City, Westchester, Long Island, and Florida; and 31 affiliated community health centers. The Icahn School of Medicine is one of three medical schools that have earned distinction by multiple indicators: ranked in the top 20 by U.S. News & World Report's "Best Medical Schools", aligned with a U.S. News & World Report's "Honor Roll" Hospital, No. 13 in the nation for National Institutes of Health funding, and among the top 10 most innovative research institutions as ranked by the journal Nature in its Nature Innovation Index. This reflects a special level of excellence in education, clinical practice, and research. The Mount Sinai Hospital is ranked No. 18 on U.S. News & World Report's "Honor Roll" of top U.S. hospitals; it is one of the nation's top 20 hospitals in Cardiology/Heart Surgery, Gastroenterology/GI Surgery, Geriatrics, Nephrology, and Neurology/Neurosurgery, and in the top 50 in six other specialties in the 2018-2019 "Best Hospitals" issue. Mount Sinai's Kravis Children's Hospital also is ranked nationally in five out of ten pediatric specialties by U.S. News & World Report. The New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai is ranked 11th nationally for Ophthalmology and 44th for Ear, Nose, and Throat, while Mount Sinai Beth Israel, Mount Sinai St. Luke's and Mount Sinai West are ranked regionally.

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