Eating nuts caused tooth decay in hunter-gatherers

Jan 06, 2014 by Kerry Sheridan
Researchers say eating nuts and acorns may have helped hunter-gatherers survive 15,000 years ago in northern Africa but the practice wreaked havoc on their teeth

Eating nuts and acorns may have helped hunter-gatherers survive 15,000 years ago in northern Africa but the practice wreaked havoc on their teeth, researchers said Monday.

Fermented carbohydrates in the nuts caused cavities, tooth decay and bad breath, said the study led by British scientists in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The findings offer the earliest evidence of nut harvesting and storage among African , and are based on dozens of hole-riddled dental remains found in Morocco's Taforalt Cave.

Dental woes have long been believed to originate in later farming cultures some 10,000 years ago, when people began eating processed foods on a wide scale.

Toothaches were presumed rare among hunter-gatherers. But this research suggests they arose earlier than previously thought by several thousand years.

The study pointed to an "exceptionally high prevalence of caries," or dental disease, found in 51 percent of teeth among the adult remains.

That is far higher than the rate of generally seen in hunter-gatherers, which has ranged from zero to 14 percent, and much closer to the level seen in prehistoric farmers, said the study.

"The majority of the people's mouths were affected by both cavities in the teeth and abscesses," said co-author Isabelle DeGroote of Liverpool John Moores University.

"They would have suffered from frequent tooth ache and ."

The latest analysis was done on a total of 52 adults whose remains were found in the 1950s as well as during more recent excavations that were begun in 2003.

Scientists used to date the remains and potent microscopes to identify the fossils of plant material which included acorns, pine nuts, juniper berries, pistachios and wild oats.

There were so many remnants of acorns that researchers came to the conclusion that they must have been harvested and stored for eating as a staple food all year long.

Long esparto grasses were also identified in the excavation, and were likely used to weave baskets for carrying nuts, storing them and even cooking them, the study said.

"This is the first time we have documented this set of behaviors in the Iberomaurusian," a distant culture that thrived in the Maghreb, said lead author Louise Humphrey of The Natural History Museum of London, in an email to AFP.

"It is the earliest documented evidence of systematic exploitation of wild plant resources in hunter-gatherers from Africa."

Iberomaurusian people inhabited Taforalt some 13,000 to 15,000 years ago.

They are described as "complex hunter-gatherers" who performed elaborate burials of their dead, used grindstones to prepare food and engaged in harvesting and storage of wild nuts, the study said.

Explore further: European hunter-gatherers owned pigs as early as 4600BC

More information: "Earliest evidence for caries and exploitation of starchy plant foods in Pleistocene hunter-gatherers from Morocco," by Louise T. Humphrey et al. www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1318176111

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Apr 19, 2014

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

Apr 17, 2014

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

Apr 17, 2014

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Clippers and coiners in 16th-century England

In 2017 a new £1 coin will appear in our pockets with a design extremely difficult to forge. In the mid-16th century, Elizabeth I's government came up with a series of measures to deter "divers evil persons" ...

Growing app industry has developers racing to keep up

Smartphone application developers say they are challenged by the glut of apps as well as the need to update their software to keep up with evolving phone technology, making creative pricing strategies essential to finding ...

Making graphene in your kitchen

Graphene has been touted as a wonder material—the world's thinnest substance, but super-strong. Now scientists say it is so easy to make you could produce some in your kitchen.