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: Seeing dinosaur feathers in a new light

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

Seeing dinosaur feathers in a new light

3 hours ago

Why were dinosaurs covered in a cloak of feathers long before the early bird species Archaeopteryx first attempted flight? Researchers from the University of Bonn and the University of Göttingen attempt ...

Mexico archaeologists explore Teotihuacan tunnel (Update)

19 hours ago

A yearslong exploration of a tunnel sealed almost 2,000 years ago at the ancient city of Teotihuacan yielded thousands of relics and the discovery of three chambers that could hold more important finds, Mexican ...

Peruvian dig reveals sacrificial mystery

Oct 29, 2014

Tulane University physical anthropologist John Verano has spent summers in Peru for the last 30 years, digging for ancient bones and solving their secrets. But his most recent work focuses on a unique archeological ...

Phaistos Disk may be prayer to mother goddess

Oct 27, 2014

Ancient writing systems and their meanings absorb scientists who dedicate years of work to deciphering and sorting through arguments to determine the true meaning and purpose of writings. The latest news ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.