Scientists say the build-up of tartar on 400,000-year-old teeth found in a cave in Israel provides direct evidence of what early Palaeolithic people ate and the quality of the air they breathed.
The remains were found in Qesem Cave near Tel Aviv, the site of many major discoveries from the late Lower Paleolithic period.
“Because the cave was sealed for 200,000 years, everything, including the teeth and its calculus, were preserved exceedingly well,” says Avi Gopher Tel Aviv University.
“Human teeth of this age have never been studied before for dental calculus, and we had very low expectations because of the age of the plaque,” said Prof. Gopher.
The plaque was a “time capsule” he said and revealed three major findings: “charcoal from indoor fires; evidence for the ingestion of essential plant-based dietary components; and fibres that might have been used to clean teeth or were remnants of raw materials”.
The research, published in Quaternary International, was led by. Karen Hardy of ICREA at the Universitat Autònoma, Barcelona, Spain. She had previously published research on the dental calculus of Neanderthals from El Sidron cave in Spain, but these dated back just 40,000-50,000 years.
“This is the first evidence that the world’s first indoor BBQs had health-related consequences,” said Ran Barkai from tel Aviv University who was also involved in the study.
“The people who lived in Qesem not only enjoyed the benefits of fire – roasting their meat indoors – but they also had to find a way of controlling the fire – of living with it.
“This is one of the first, if not the first, cases of manmade pollution on the planet. I live near power plants, near chemical factories. On the one hand, we are dependent on technology, but on the other, we are inhaling its pollutants. Progress has a price — and we find possibly the first evidence of this at Qesem Cave 400,000 years ago.”
The researchers also found minute traces of essential fatty acids, possibly from nuts or seeds, and small particles of starch in the analysed calculus.
“We know that the cave dwellers ate animals, and exploited them entirely,” said Barkai. “We know that they hunted them, butchered them, roasted them, broke their bones to extract their marrow, and even used the butchered bones as hammers to shape flint tools. Now we have direct evidence of a tiny piece of the plant-based part of their diet also, in addition to the animal meat and fat they consumed.
“We have come full circle in our understanding of their diet and hunting and gathering practices.”
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.