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The Change in Pre-Historic Eating Habits
Before the Copper Age, and again before the first farmers arrived in Italy 33,000 years ago, archaeologists discovered two significant changes in the oral bacteria...
The microbiome of the human mouth has a significant impact on our health. Little is known about how our varied oral microbiomes and way of life have co-evolved. Even before the advent of agriculture, it is reasonable to assume that our eating patterns have altered and thus have the bacteria in our mouths.
Through analyzing ancient oral bacteria, a new study1 now provides light on the development of eating patterns in Italy over the past 33,000 years, both before and after the development of agriculture. By examining ancient DNA embedded in dental plaque from 76 individuals who lived between 33,000 and 4,000 years ago, the article links archaeological evidence with changes in the microbial populations of human mouths. The study specifically examined the dental calculus of nine hunter-gatherers who lived between 33,000 and 13,000 years ago and 67 samples from the Neolithic to the Copper ages, both of which were discovered in Paglicci Cave (8,200 to 4,200 years ago)… By the way, the Paglicci Cave was full of Paleolithic artifacts and findings, including images of horses.
The researchers used ancient DNA analysis of the plaque itself to collect genetic remnants of the pre-existing bacteria in order to figure out which oral bacteria that have existed in humans' mouths since the Copper Age, 33,000 years ago and by nature what they were eating. The scientists also discovered two significant transitions, which appear to be related to shifts in subsistence tactics.
As it turns out, the researchers did discover that changes in the food caused changes in the bacterial populations in mouths, twice. See, prehistoric peoples in Africa, the Americas, the Near East, and the Far East all seem to have separately developed agriculture. Food production originally appeared in the Near East around 10,000 years ago; in Italy, agriculture first appeared in Apulia, Italy around 8,200 years ago.
According to the researchers, early farmers who sailed from the Levant brought their knowledge to Apulia… The territory had previously been sporadically inhabited by hunter-gatherers. Surprisingly, despite apparent population replacements after the Last Glacial Maximum, the oral microbiomes of the archaic hunter-gatherers were discovered to be remarkably consistent.
According to the examination of the food microfragments embedded in the calculus of the teeth, the uniformity may represent a long-standing subsistence strategy based on a heavy diet of animals and starchy plants - in fact, a greater range of plants than during the succeeding Neolithic period. Remember that hunter-gatherers did more than simply hunt; they also gathered food, grinding wild grains like oats with stones and eating the resulting food.
By the Neolithic, early farmers had moved into small villages and had developed their ceramic skills. They produced pots with basic round bottoms that were decorated by pressing objects like sticks, combs, fingernails, or seashells into the still-moist clay. Their diet also shifted toward a diet higher in carbohydrates and lower in protein. The first significant change in the microbiome occurred at that time.
In the latter half of the Neolithic period, it was the second change in the microbiome that was surprising. And indeed, not shockingly, as the quantity of carbs grew, this study did find indications of deteriorating oral health. But the diatoms found in the samples lead the archaeologists to believe that the early farmers were consuming contaminated water, which would not have been good for their health. While the bacterial populations in the Neolithic mouths at one location, Cavallo Cave, were largely the same, archaeologists also found various funerary models at the same location. They speculate that it might be a sign of social division, a fight over water equality.
I need to describe that this study is limited on some aspects. See, it is true that the oral bacteria of urban people and modern hunters and gatherers differ. But, the lack of a distinct archaeological boundary between the pre- and post-Neolithic, however, has not made it any easier for investigations aiming to discover microbiome alterations in ancient societies. The writers note that the agrarian revolution was not an all-encompassing rapid phenomenon.
Archaeology can discover signs of crop and animal domestication and draw the conclusion that farming took place. For example, researchers have discovered a remains of a grain silo in Israel dating back 7,200 years. Also, hundreds of thousands of years ago, pre-sapiens hominins stored bones in Qesem Cave for later breaking apart and marrow extraction. But the archaeological record by in large, is currently void of prehistoric food storage techniques. In addition, estimating how much food a prehistoric civilization produced, consumed, and brought home from the wild is nearly impossible at this time.
Another perplexing fact is that prehistoric peoples continued to hunt extensively even after the development of animal husbandry, primarily in desert regions of the Near East, central Asia, and Africa, but also very much everywhere else. They did this by utilizing enormous "kite" traps.In fact, they appeared to hunt more in the post-Neolithic era, at least in some locations. This study, while interesting, is extremely limited by these aspects.
Quagliariello, A., Modi, A., Innocenti, G. et al. Ancient oral microbiomes support gradual Neolithic dietary shifts towards agriculture. Nat Commun 13, 6927 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-34416-0