Dental disease was originally thought to have originated when farming and food processing came about around 10,000 years ago, but this study suggests otherwise. Analysis of 52 adult dentitions from African hunter-gather skeletons yielded evidence of tooth decay in more than half of the teeth found intact, while only three skeletons showed no signs of cavities whatsoever.
According to researchers, that rate of tooth decay is much higher than was typically seen in other hunter-gatherers, which generally ranged from 0 to 14%. So what caused it?
To answer that question, the scientists used powerful microscopes to identify the fossils of plant materials found near the bodies. While juniper berries, pine nuts, pistachios, and wild oats were found in association with the skeletons, by far the most numerous remnant were acorns, which led the researchers to conclude that the nuts must have been harvested and stored for eating as a staple food throughout the year.
"Sweet acorns are neat, easily storable packages of carbohydrate. We think they were cooking them, and that would have made them sticky," said Dr. Louise Humphrey from London?s Natural History Museum. "The cooking process would have already started to break down the carbohydrates, but the stickiness of the food would then have got into the gaps in the teeth and literally stuck around. And if you've already got cavities, it becomes a bit of a vicious circle."
The nuts, in addition to long esparto grasses, gave unique insight into the ancient human past, and the behaviors of our ancestors. Dr. Humphrey said that the findings indicated "the earliest documented evidence of systematic exploitation of wild plant resources in hunter-gatherers from Africa."
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