400,000-year-old teeth reveal prehistoric pollution

400,000-year-old teeth reveal prehistoric pollution

Tel Aviv University team provides unprecedented glimpse into eating and cooking habits of paleolithic man

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

The teeth found at Qesem Cave outside of Tel Aviv (Courtesy: Prof. Israel Hershkovitz/Tel Aviv University)
The teeth found at Qesem Cave outside of Tel Aviv (Courtesy: Prof. Israel Hershkovitz/Tel Aviv University)

A 400,000-year-old set of teeth, discovered in a cave outside of Tel Aviv, has revealed new information about the daily life of prehistoric man, Israeli scientists announced Wednesday.

A team of researchers from Tel Aviv University, along with colleagues from Spain, the United Kingdom and Australia, found minute traces of food, pollutants and possibly the remains of rudimentary dental hygiene tools in the teeth’s plaque, giving them a rare glimpse into the lifestyle of early humans, the university said in a press release.

The teeth were discovered in Qesem Cave outside of Tel Aviv, where they had lain undisturbed for hundreds of thousands of years until the team unearthed them in 2011.

“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. Avi Gopher of Tel Aviv University, using the technical term, calculus, for what is more commonly known as tartar or plaque. “However, our international collaborators, using a combination of methods, found many materials entrapped within the calculus. Because the cave was sealed for 200,000 years, everything, including the teeth and its calculus, were preserved exceedingly well.”

The researchers found small amounts of food in the teeth from the Lower Paleolithic period, which the scientists said were indicative of a plant-based diet.

“We know that the cave dwellers ate animals, and exploited them entirely,” said Prof. Barkai of Tel Aviv University’s archaeology department. “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.”

The team also found inedible fibers that may have been used by prehistoric man to clean his teeth — a sort of proto-toothbrush.

“Our findings are rare — there is no other similar discovery from this time period,” Barkai said.

The pollutants, including respiratory irritants like charcoal discovered in the teeth’s calculus, are also the first instance of byproducts from humans’ use of fire that has been documented.

“This is one of the first, if not the first, cases of man-made pollution on the planet,” Barkai said.

“The charcoal and starch findings give us a more comprehensive idea of how these people lived their lives — and this broader view came directly from their teeth.

“This is the first evidence that the world’s first indoor BBQs had health-related consequences. 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,” he said.

“Progress has a price,” he added. “And we find possibly the first evidence of this at Qesem Cave 400,000 years ago.”

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