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streets of Pompeii

Topic: Dining in ancient Pompeii !

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—In Pompeii, a team led by University of Cincinnati archaeologist Steven Ellis has discovered evidence that challenges the traditional perception of Roman dining, which holds that the rich feasted on exotic animals while the poor were reduced to eating simple fare. In a two block area near the city's Porta Stabia gate, the team excavated some 20 shop fronts that would have served food and drink to the general public. Scraps of food recovered from latrines and cesspits show that these businesses weren't just serving gruel, but a wide variety of foods, including cuts of expensive meat and salted fish imported from Spain. In one drain the archaeologists found shellfish and a leg joint of a giraffe, the first giraffe bone to be reported at a site in Italy. "The traditional vision of some mass of hapless lemmings—scrounging for whatever they can pinch from the side of a street, or huddled around a bowl of gruel—needs to be replaced by a higher fare and standard of living, at least for the urbanites in Pompeii," said Ellis.
archaeology.org
Jan 2, 2014

More information on this topic:
No scrounging for scraps: Research uncovers the diets of the middle and lower class in Pompeii

University of Cincinnati archaeologists are turning up discoveries in the famed Roman city of Pompeii that are wiping out the historic perceptions of how the Romans dined, with the rich enjoying delicacies such as flamingos and the poor scrounging for soup or gruel. Steven Ellis, a University of Cincinnati associate professor of classics, will present these discoveries on Jan. 4, at the joint annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) and American Philological Association (APA) in Chicago.

UC teams of archaeologists have spent more than a decade at two city blocks within a non-elite district in the Roman city of Pompeii, which was buried under a volcano in 79 AD. The excavations are uncovering the earlier use of buildings that would have dated back to the 6th century.

Ellis says the excavation is producing a complete archaeological analysis of homes, shops and businesses at a forgotten area inside one of the busiest gates of Pompeii, the Porta Stabia.

The area covers 10 separate building plots and a total of 20 shop fronts, most of which served food and drink. The waste that was examined included collections from drains as well as 10 latrines and cesspits, which yielded mineralized and charred food waste coming from kitchens and excrement. Ellis says among the discoveries in the drains was an abundance of the remains of fully-processed foods, especially grains.
“The material from the drains revealed a range and quantity of materials to suggest a rather clear socio-economic distinction between the activities and consumption habits of each property, which were otherwise indistinguishable hospitality businesses,” says Ellis. Findings revealed foods that would have been inexpensive and widely available, such as grains, fruits, nuts, olives, lentils, local fish and chicken eggs, as well as minimal cuts of more expensive meat and salted fish from Spain. Waste from neighboring drains would also turn up less of a variety of foods, revealing a socioeconomic distinction between neighbors.

A drain from a central property revealed a richer variety of foods as well as imports from outside Italy, such as shellfish, sea urchin and even delicacies including the butchered leg joint of a giraffe. “That the bone represents the height of exotic food is underscored by the fact that this is thought to be the only giraffe bone ever recorded from an archaeological excavation in Roman Italy,” says Ellis. “How part of the animal, butchered, came to be a kitchen scrap in a seemingly standard Pompeian restaurant not only speaks to long-distance trade in exotic and wild animals, but also something of the richness, variety and range of a non-elite diet.”

Deposits also included exotic and imported spices, some from as far away as Indonesia.

Ellis adds that one of the deposits dates as far back as the 4th century, which he says is a particularly valuable discovery, since few other ritual deposits survived from that early stage in the development of Pompeii.

“The ultimate aim of our research is to reveal the structural and social relationships over time between working-class Pompeian households, as well as to determine the role that sub-elites played in the shaping of the city, and to register their response to city-and Mediterranean-wide historical, political and economic developments. However, one of the larger datasets and themes of our research has been diet and the infrastructure of food consumption and food ways,” says Ellis.

He adds that as a result of the discoveries, “The traditional vision of some mass of hapless lemmings – scrounging for whatever they can pinch from the side of a street, or huddled around a bowl of gruel – needs to be replaced by a higher fare and standard of living, at least for the urbanites in Pompeii.”

Contributing team leaders on the project who have focused on diet and food ways are Michael MacKinnon, a professor the University of Winnipeg; Mark Robinson, professor at Oxford University; Jennifer Robinson, also of Oxford University; Emily Holt, professor at Oberlin College and Professor Andrew Fairbairn of the University of Queensland.

Original article:
Phys.org

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Topic: Paleo Diet

We are not biologically identical to our Paleolithic predecessors, nor do we have access to the foods they ate. And deducing dietary guidelines from modern foraging societies is difficult because they vary so much by geography, season and opportunity

Meet Grok. According to his online profile, he is a tall, lean, ripped and agile 30-year-old. By every measure, Grok is in superb health: low blood pressure; no inflammation; ideal levels of insulin, glucose, cholesterol and triglycerides. He and his family eat really healthy, too. They gather wild seeds, grasses, and nuts; seasonal vegetables; roots and berries. They hunt and fish their own meat. Between foraging, building sturdy shelters from natural materials, collecting firewood and fending off dangerous predators far larger than himself, Grok’s life is strenuous, perilous and physically demanding. Yet, somehow, he is a stress-free dude who always manages to get enough sleep and finds the time to enjoy moments of tranquility beside gurgling creeks. He is perfectly suited to his environment in every way. He is totally Zen.

Ostensibly, Grok is “a rather typical hunter–gatherer” living before the dawn of agriculture—an “official primal prototype.” He is the poster-persona for fitness author and blogger Mark Sisson’s “Primal Blueprint”—a set of guidelines that “allows you to control how your genes express themselves in order to build the strongest, leanest, healthiest body possible, taking clues from evolutionary biology (that’s the primal part).” These guidelines incorporate many principles of what is more commonly known as the Paleolithic, or caveman, diet, which started to whet people’s appetites as early as the 1960s and is available in many different flavors today.

Proponents of the Paleo diet follow a nutritional plan based on the eating habits of our ancestors in the Paleolithic period, between 2.5 million and 10,000 years ago. Before agriculture and industry, humans presumably lived as hunter–gatherers: picking berry after berry off of bushes; digging up tumescent tubers; chasing mammals to the point of exhaustion; scavenging meat, fat and organs from animals that larger predators had killed; and eventually learning to fish with lines and hooks and hunt with spears, nets, bows and arrows.

Most Paleo dieters of today do none of this, with the exception of occasional hunting trips or a little urban foraging. Instead, their diet is largely defined by what they do not do: most do not eat dairy or processed grains of any kind, because humans did not invent such foods until after the Paleolithic; peanuts, lentils, beans, peas and other legumes are off the menu, but nuts are okay; meat is consumed in large quantities, often cooked in animal fat of some kind; Paleo dieters sometimes eat fruit and often devour vegetables; and processed sugars are prohibited, but a little honey now and then is fine.

Almost equal numbers of advocates and critics seem to have gathered at the Paleo diet dinner table and both tribes have a few particularly vociferous members. Critiques of the Paleo diet range from the mild—Eh, it’s certainly not the worst way to eat—to the acerbic: It is nonsensical and sometimes dangerously restrictive. Most recently, in her book Paleofantasy, evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk of the University of California, Riverside, debunks what she identifies as myths central to the Paleo diet and the larger Paleo lifestyle movement.

Most nutritionists consent that the Paleo diet gets at least one thing right—cutting down on processed foods that have been highly modified from their raw state through various methods of preservation. Examples include white bread and other refined flour products, artificial cheese, certain cold cuts and packaged meats, potato chips, and sugary cereals. Such processed foods often offer less protein, fiber and iron than their unprocessed equivalents, and some are packed with sodium and preservatives that may increase the risk of heart disease and certain cancers.

But the Paleo diet bans more than just highly processed junk foods—in its most traditional form, it prohibits any kind of food unavailable to stone age hunter–gatherers, including dairy rich in calcium, grains replete with fiber, and vitamins and legumes packed with protein. The rationale for such constraint—in fact the entire premise of the Paleo diet—is, at best, only half correct. Because the human body adapted to life in the stone age, Paleo dieters argue—and because our genetics and anatomy have changed very little since then, they say—we should emulate the diets of our Paleo predecessors as closely as possible in order to be healthy. Obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and many other “modern” diseases, the reasoning goes, result primarily from the incompatibility of our stone age anatomy with our contemporary way of eating.

Diet has been an important part of our evolution—as it is for every species—and we have inherited many adaptations from our Paleo predecessors. Understanding how we evolved could, in principle, help us make smarter dietary choices today. But the logic behind the Paleo diet fails in several ways: by making apotheosis of one particular slice of our evolutionary history; by insisting that we are biologically identical to stone age humans; and by denying the benefits of some of our more modern methods of eating.

“‘Paleofantasies’ call to mind a time when everything about us—body, mind, and behavior—was in sync with the environment…but no such time existed,” Zuk wrote in her book. “We and every other living thing have always lurched along in evolutionary time, with the inevitable trade-offs that are a hallmark of life.”

On his website, Sisson writes that “while the world has changed in innumerable ways in the last 10,000 years (for better and worse), the human genome has changed very little and thus only thrives under similar conditions.” This is simply not true. In fact, this reasoning misconstrues how evolution works. If humans and other organisms could only thrive in circumstances similar to the ones their predecessors lived in, life would not have lasted very long.

Several examples of recent and relatively speedy human evolution underscore that our anatomy and genetics have not been set in stone since the stone age. Within a span of 7,000 years, for instance, people adapted to eating dairy by developing lactose tolerance. Usually, the gene encoding an enzyme named lactase—which breaks down lactose sugars in milk—shuts down after infancy; when dairy became prevalent, many people evolved a mutation that kept the gene turned on throughout life. Likewise, the genetic mutation responsible for blue eyes likely arose between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago. And in regions where malaria is common, natural selection has modified people’s immune systems and red blood cells in ways that help them resist the mosquito-borne disease; some of these genetic mutations appeared within the last 10,000 or even 5,000 years. The organisms with which we share our bodies have evolved even faster, particularly the billions of bacteria living in our intestines. Our gut bacteria interact with our food in many ways, helping us break down tough plant fibers, but also competing for calories. We do not have direct evidence of which bacterial species thrived in Paleolithic intestines, but we can be sure that their microbial communities do not exactly match our own.

Even if eating only foods available to hunter–gatherers in the Paleolithic made sense, it would be impossible. As Christina Warinner of the University of Zurich emphasizes in her 2012 TED talk, just about every single species commonly consumed today—whether a fruit, vegetable or animal—is drastically different from its Paleolithic predecessor. In most cases, we have transformed the species we eat through artificial selection: we have bred cows, chickens and goats to provide as much meat, milk and eggs as possible and have sown seeds only from plants with the most desirable traits—with the biggest fruits, plumpest kernels, sweetest flesh and fewest natural toxins. Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and kale are all different cultivars of a single species, Brassica oleracea; generation by generation, we reshaped this one plant’s leaves, stems and flowers into wildly different arrangements, the same way we bred Welsh corgis, pugs, dachshunds, Saint Bernards and greyhounds out of a single wolf species. Corn was once a straggly grass known as teosinte and tomatoes were once much smaller berries. And the wild ancestors of bananas were rife with seeds.

The Paleo diet not only misunderstands how our own species, the organisms inside our bodies and the animals and plants we eat have evolved over the last 10,000 years, it also ignores much of the evidence about our ancestors’ health during their—often brief—individual life spans (even if a minority of our Paleo ancestors made it into their 40s or beyond, many children likely died before age 15). In contrast to Grok, neither Paleo hunter–gatherers nor our more recent predecessors were sculpted Adonises immune to all disease. A recent study in The Lancet looked for signs of atherosclerosis—arteries clogged with cholesterol and fats—in more than one hundred ancient mummies from societies of farmers, foragers and hunter–gatherers around the world, including Egypt, Peru, the southwestern U.S and the Aleutian Islands. “A common assumption is that atherosclerosis is predominately lifestyle-related, and that if modern human beings could emulate preindustrial or even preagricultural lifestyles, that atherosclerosis, or least its clinical manifestations, would be avoided,” the researchers wrote. But they found evidence of probable or definite atherosclerosis in 47 of 137 mummies from each of the different geographical regions. And even if heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes were not as common among our predecessors, they still faced numerous threats to their health that modern sanitation and medicine have rendered negligible for people in industrialized nations, such as infestations of parasites and certain lethal bacterial and viral infections.

Some Paleo dieters emphasize that they never believed in one true caveman lifestyle or diet and that—in the fashion of Sisson’s Blueprint—they use our evolutionary past to form guidelines, not scripture. That strategy seems reasonably solid at first, but quickly disintegrates. Even though researchers know enough to make some generalizations about human diets in the Paleolithic with reasonable certainty, the details remain murky. Exactly what proportions of meat and vegetables did different hominid species eat in the Paleolithic? It’s not clear. Just how far back were our ancestors eating grains and dairy? Perhaps far earlier than we initially thought. What we can say for certain is that in the Paleolithic, the human diet varied immensely by geography, season and opportunity. “We now know that humans have evolved not to subsist on a single, Paleolithic diet but to be flexible eaters, an insight that has important implications for the current debate over what people today should eat in order to be healthy,” anthropologist William Leonard of Northwestern University wrote in Scientific American in 2002.
We cannot time travel and join our Paleo ancestors by the campfire as they prepare to eat; likewise, shards of ancient pottery and fossilized teeth can tell us only so much. If we compare the diets of so-called modern hunter-gatherers, however, we see just how difficult it is to find meaningful commonalities and extract useful dietary guidelines from their disparate lives (see infographic). Which hunter–gatherer tribe are we supposed to mimic, exactly? How do we reconcile the Inuit diet—mostly the flesh of sea mammals—with the more varied plant and land animal diet of the Hadza or !Kung? Chucking the many different hunter–gather diets into a blender to come up with some kind of quintessential smoothie is a little ridiculous. “Too often modern health problems are portrayed as the result of eating ‘bad’ foods that are departures from the natural human diet…This is a fundamentally flawed approach to assessing human nutritional needs,” Leonard wrote. “Our species was not designed to subsist on a single, optimal diet. What is remarkable about human beings is the extraordinary variety of what we eat. We have been able to thrive in almost every ecosystem on the Earth, consuming diets ranging from almost all animal foods among populations of the Arctic to primarily tubers and cereal grains among populations in the high Andes.”

Closely examining one group of modern hunter–gatherers—the Hiwi—reveals how much variation exists within the diet of a single small foraging society and deflates the notion that hunter–gatherers have impeccable health. Such examination also makes obvious the immense gap between a genuine community of foragers and Paleo dieters living in modern cities, selectively shopping at farmers’ markets and making sure the dressing on their house salad is gluten, sugar and dairy free.

By latest count, about 800 Hiwi live in palm thatched huts in Colombia and Venezuela. In 1990 Ana Magdalena Hurtado and Kim Hill—now both at Arizona State University in Tempe—published a thorough study (pdf) of the Hiwi diet in the neotropical savannas of the Orinoco River basin in Southwestern Venezuela. Vast grasslands with belts of forest, these savannas receive plenty of rain between May and November. From January through March, however, precipitation is rare: the grasses shrivel, while lakes and lagoons evaporate. Fish trapped in shrinking pools of water are easy targets for caiman, capybaras and turtles. In turn, the desiccating lakes become prime hunting territory for the Hiwi. During the wet season, however, the Hiwi mainly hunt for animals in the forest, using bows and arrows.

The Hiwi gather and hunt a diverse group of plants and animals from the savannas, forests, rivers and swamps. Their main sources of meat are capybara, collared peccary, deer, anteater, armadillo, and feral cattle, numerous species of fish, and at least some turtle species. Less commonly consumed animals include iguanas and savanna lizards, wild rabbits, and many birds. Not exactly the kind of meat Paleo dieters and others in urban areas can easily obtain.

Five roots, both bitter and sweet, are staples in the Hiwi diet, as are palm nuts and palm hearts, several different fruits, a wild legume named Campsiandra comosa, and honey produced by several bee species and sometimes by wasps. A few Hiwi families tend small, scattered and largely unproductive fields of plantains, corn and squash. At neighboring cattle ranches in a town about 30 kilometers away, some Hiwi buy rice, noodles, corn flour and sugar. Anthropologists and tourists have also given the Hiwi similar processed foods as gifts (see illustration at top).

Hill and Hurtado calculated that foods hunted and collected in the wild account for 95 percent of the Hiwi’s total caloric intake; the remaining 5 percent comes from store-bought goods as well as from fruits and squash gathered from the Hiwi’s small fields. They rely more on purchased goods during the peak of the dry season.

The Hiwi are not particularly healthy. Compared to the Ache, a hunter–gatherer tribe in Paraguay, the Hiwi are shorter, thinner, more lethargic and less well nourished. Hiwi men and women of all ages constantly complain of hunger. Many Hiwi are heavily infected with parasitic hookworms, which burrow into the small intestine and feed on blood. And only 50 percent of Hiwi children survive beyond the age of 15.

Drop Grok into the Hiwi’s midst—or indeed among any modern or ancient hunter–gather society—and he would be a complete aberration. Grok cannot teach us how to live or eat; he never existed. Living off the land or restricting oneself to foods available before agriculture and industry does not guarantee good health. The human body is not simply a collection of adaptations to life in the Paleolithic—its legacy is far greater. Each of us is a dynamic assemblage of inherited traits that have been tweaked, transformed, lost and regained since the beginning of life itself. Such changes have not ceased in the past 10,000 years.

Ultimately—regardless of one’s intentions—the Paleo diet is founded more on privilege than on logic. Hunter–gatherers in the Paleolithic hunted and gathered because they had to. Paleo dieters attempt to eat like hunter–gatherers because they want to.

Original article:

scientific american
by Ferris Jabr, June 28, 2013

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By Jen Christiansen

The Hiwi Diet

What a group of hunter-gatherers in Colombia and Venezuela eat

Palm nuts and heart (Mauritia flexuosa)Brazilian Teal (Amazonetta brasiliensis)Wild root “Yatsiro” (Canna edulis)Red Brocket deer (Mazama americana)Wild root “No’o” (Dioscorea)Wild root “Oyo” (Banisteriopsis)Armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus)Guava (Psidium guava)Yellow-spotted river turtle (Podocnemis unifilis)Wild root “Hewyna” (Calathea allouia)Mata Mata turtle (Chelus fimbriatus)Capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris)Silver Mylosomma (Mylossoma duriventre)Iguana (Iguana iguana)Iguana (Iguana iguana)Orange (Citrus x sinensis)Roseate Spoonbill (Ajaja ajaja)Roseate Spoonbill (Ajaja ajaja)Collared peccary (Pecari tajacu)Wild rabbit (Sylvilagus varynaensis)Piranha (Serrasalmus)Trahira (Hoplias malabaricus)Collared anteater (Tamandua tetradactyla)Gold Tegu (Tupinambis teguixin)Mangoes (Mangifera)Wild legume “Chiga” (Campsiandra comosa)South American catfish (Pseudoplatystoma)Charichuelo (Garcinia madruno)Yellow-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis denticulata)Caiman (Caiman crocodilus)

by Marissa Fessenden

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Australopithecus afarensis (pictured in an artist’s impression) had different diets from their ancestors

Topic Ancient diet

A new analysis of early human teeth from extinct fossils has found that they expanded their diets about 3.5 million years ago to include grasses and possibly animals.

Human ancestors’ diet changed 3.5 million years ago

A new analysis of early human teeth from extinct fossils has found that they expanded their diets about 3.5 million years ago to include grasses and possibly animals.

Before this, humanlike creatures – or hominins – ate a forest-based diet similar to modern gorillas and chimps.

Researchers analysed fossilised tooth enamel of 11 species of hominins and other primates found in East Africa.

The findings appear in four papers published in PNAS journal.

Like chimpanzees today, many of our early human ancestors lived in forests and ate a diet of leaves and fruits from trees, shrubs and herbs.

But scientists have now found that this changed 3.5 million years ago in the species Australopithecus afarensis and Kenyanthropus platyops.

Their diet included grasses, sedges, and possibly animals that ate such plants. They also tended to live in the open savannahs of Africa.

The new studies show that they not only lived there, but began to consume progressively more foods from the savannahs.

Researchers looked at samples from 175 hominins of 11 species, ranging from 1.4 to 4.1 million years old.

Their diet was analysed from the chemical make up of their teeth, identifying the carbon isotopes within them.

The ratios of different types of carbon atoms, or isotopes, in fossils can give clues to what a fossil creature ate because different foods have different carbon isotope signatures.

“What we have is chemical information on what our ancestors ate, which in simpler terms is like a piece of food item stuck between their teeth and preserved for millions of years,” said Dr Zeresenay Alemseged, from the California Academy of Sciences, co-author on two of the papers.

“Because feeding is the most important factor determining an organism’s physiology, behaviour and its interaction with the environment, these finds will give us new insight into the evolutionary mechanisms that shaped our evolution.”

It is not yet clear whether the change in diet included animals, but “the possible diets of some of our hominin kin” has been considerably narrowed down, Dr Matt Sponheimer, lead author of another of the papers, told BBC News.

A new habitat

“We now have good evidence that some early hominins began using plant foods that are not used in abundance by living African apes today, and this probably led to a major change in the way they used the landscape.

“One consequence could be that the dietary expansion led to a habitat expansion, as they could travel to more open habitats more efficiently.

“We know that many early hominins lived in areas that would not have readily supported chimpanzees with their strong preference for forest fruits. It could also be argued that this dietary expansion was a key element in hominin diversification.”

The study has also answered, at least in part, what researchers have long been speculating – how so many large species of primate managed to co-exist.

“They were not competing for the same foods,” said Prof Thure Cerling from the University of Utah, who led one of the research papers.

‘The modern human’

“All these species who were once in the human lineage, ventured out into this new world of foods 3.5 million years ago, but we don’t yet understand why that is.”

As well as looking at non-human primates, the researchers analysed fossils from other animals from the same era and did not find any evidence of a change in diet.

This combined research highlights a “step towards becoming the modern human”, said Dr Jonathan Wynn from the University of South Florida, who led the analysis of Australopithecus afarensis.

“Exploring new environments and testing new foods, ultimately might be correlated with further changes in human history.”

These four complementary studies give a persuasive account of shifts in dietary niche in East African hominins, Dr Louise Humphrey from the Natural History Museum in London, told BBC news.

Original article:
BBC.co.uk
By Melissa Hogenboom
Science reporter, BBC News
June 4, 2013

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The teeth of fossils 3.5 million years old give scientists clues to their diet

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Topic: Ancients in New Zealand

A University of Otago-led multidisciplinary team of scientists have shed new light on the diet, lifestyles and movements of the first New Zealanders by analysing isotopes from their bones and teeth.

In research published today in the prestigious international journal PLOS ONE, the team are able to identify what is likely to be the first group of people to colonise Marlborough’s Wairau Bar possibly from Polynesia around 700 years ago. They also present evidence suggesting that individuals from two other groups buried at the site had likely lived in different regions of New Zealand before being buried at Wairau Bar.

The researchers, co-ordinated by the Department of Anatomy’s Associate Professor Hallie Buckley, undertook isotopic analyses of samples recovered from the koiwi tangata (human remains) of the Rangitane iwi tupuna prior to their reburial at Wairau Bar in 2009.

The Wairau Bar Koiwi Project is part of a larger archaeological project being conducted in collaboration with the Rangitane iwi, the Canterbury Museum and the University of Otago. The interpretation of these new data was strengthened by collaboration with colleagues from SPAR, the University of Otago archaeologists who undertook the more recent archaeological excavations at the site.

“By examining ratios of carbon and nitrogen isotopes present in bone collagen we were able to estimate individuals’ broad dietary makeup over a 10-20 year period prior to death. Our analysis of strontium isotopes in teeth allowed us to distinguish between people growing up in geologically different landscapes,” says Dr Rebecca Kinaston, who conducted the isotope analyses on the bones and teeth.

The tupuna were originally buried in three separate groups in a large village at the Wairau site. First excavated over 70 years ago, this ancient settlement is one of the most important archaeological sites in New Zealand because of its age and the range of east Polynesian type artefacts found there.

Previous research found that one of the burial groups displayed distinct cultural differences to the two other burial groups at the site. These included the positions in which they were interred and the presence of more numerous and rich grave offerings, including whale bone ornaments and moa eggs generally not found with the other two groups.

The new isotopic analysis of bone collagen and teeth suggests that members of this first group shared similar diets and childhood origins, while individuals in Groups 2 and 3 displayed highly variable diets and spent their childhood in geologically different areas to Group 1.

“Interestingly, Group 1 individuals showed a dietary trend similar to that identified in prehistoric individuals from a site in the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia, with both sets of people sharing a low diversity in protein sources,” Dr Kinaston says.

In contrast, dietary patterns in Groups 2 and 3 were found to be in line with individuals who spent most of their lives eating from a wide range of protein sources, such as would be available through New Zealand’s then bountiful seal, moa and other bird populations.

The large range found in Group 2 and 3’s strontium isotope ratios could reflect that they grew up in regions outside of Wairau Bar—but not where Group 1 did—and also that they were hunting and gathering across a wide geographical range, says Associate Professor Hallie Buckley.

“This is consistent with other archaeological evidence that the first settlers in New Zealand were highly mobile. That members of Groups 2 and 3 were still buried back at Wairau suggests that this village may have fulfilled both a ceremonial and home base function.”

If this is the case, this may represent the roots of the tangihanga ritual, in which Maori are buried in their ancestral lands, developing among these first New Zealanders, Associate Professor Buckley says.

Original article:
otago.ac.nz
May 16, 2013

Info on Wairau Bar

This site is known as Wairau Bar, because a bar or bank of gravel has formed where the Wairau River meets the sea. Early Polynesians used the site as a moa-hunting camp, and archaeological excavations have revealed the butchered remains of countless huge birds, together with human skeletons. As the moa is now thought to have become extinct very quickly, possibly within 100–200 years of human settlement, those who hunted it must have been among the first generations of Polynesian arrivals. In addition, the types of cultural objects (artefacts) found with skeletons at Wairau Bar are of a distinct early form that has close affinities with artefacts from the Cook, Society and Marquesas islands in East Polynesia.

Found on:
teara,govt.nz

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Topic: diet

Human sacrifices are the most infamous feature of ancient South American societies, but little was actually known about the victims? New research published in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology explores archaeological evidence from Peru, dating to the Late Horizon era between 1450 and 1532 A.D., to tell us more about the individuals who met their fate.

Examining the final years

Evidence from bone collagen to hair keratin was used to examine where the sacrificial victims lived in the decade prior to their death, as well as their diets in the months leading up to the fatal ritual.

This study investigated two key variables—residential and subsistence—among sacrificial victims dating to the Late Horizon (A.D. 1450–1532) in the Huaca de los Sacrificios at the Chotuna-Chornancap Archaeological Complex in north coastal Peru.

The studied individuals date to the period of Inca imperial rule over the Lambayeque Valley Complex which included a radical social change to the culture and the installation of direct Inca political presence in some areas of the valley.

The investigators decided to test a hypothesis that the sacrificial victims were brought from outside the locality and would have eaten a diet that corresponded to their status as sacrificial offerings in the final months of life.

To do this, they used 33 sets of human remains from Huaca de los Sacrificios, where rib samples could be collected from 32 individuals. The central aim of the study was to examine only the last decade of the individuals life through to the final months. Given this, and the fact that obtaining samples for dentine collagen isotopic analysis is particularly intrusive, the team opted not to include teeth in this study and took all samples from ribs.

Typical Inca demographic

The demographic of the victims at Huaca de Los Sacrificios mirrored that of Inca rituals within the empire’s heartland; mainly juveniles and females. Thirty of the 33 bodies were female and the majority hadn’t reached 15-years-old with some of the child mummies being no older than nine.

Haagen Klaus, anthropologist at Utah Valley University said at the time of discovery that the “majority of them were sacrificed using a very sharp bladed instrument, probably a copper or bronze tumi knife. And for the majority there are several combinations, a complex set of variations on cutting of the throat.”

Human sacrifice on the north coast of Peru can be both conservative and highly variable. The focus of ritual killing in this region for two thousand years appears to have been linked to blood sacrifice involving the slitting of the supplicant’s throat followed by a blow to the head.

A Surprising result

The results did not however match the expectations, as it revealed that in contrast to contemporaneous coastal and highland contexts rather than being individuals brought in from outside the region, the victims were local to the area, and consumed diets consistent with social status with no visible sign of dietary change in the final months. This is very different from other sacrificial victims (Inca Sacrifice Victims ‘Fattened Up’ Before Death. – National Geographic).

These findings suggest a distinct pattern of human sacrifice in the Late Horizon and underscore the regional and temporal variation in sacrificial practices in the central Andes. What this means is that every single site showing signs of the behaviour requires unique study to understand the context of sacrifice.

Source: American Journal of Physical Anthropology
More Information

Bethany L. Turner, Haagen D. Klaus, Sarah V. Livengood, Leslie E. Brown, Fausto Saldaña, Carlos Wester, The variable roads to sacrifice: Isotopic investigations of human remains from Chotuna-Huaca de los Sacrificios, Lambayeque, Peru” American Journal of Physical Anthropology, DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.22238
Human Sacrifice Victims at Chotuna-Chornancap: Multidimensional Reconstruction of Ritual Violence in the Late Pre-Hispanic Lambayeque Valley A paper by Haagen Klaus
Ambrose SH, Norr L. 1993. Experimental evidence for the relationship of the carbon isotope ratios of whole diet and dietary protein to those of bone collagen and carbonate. In: Lambert JB, Grupe G, editors. Prehistoric human bone: archaeology at the molecular level. Berlin: Springer-Verlag. p 1–37.
Donnan CB. 2012. Chotuna and Chornancap: excavating an ancient Peruvian legend. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA.

Original article:

past horizons
March 4, 2013

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Topic: Ancient Diet

Researchers involved in a new study led by Oxford University have found that between three million and 3.5 million years ago, the diet of our very early ancestors in central Africa is likely to have consisted mainly of tropical grasses and sedges. The findings are published in the early online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

An international research team extracted information from the fossilised teeth of three Australopithecus bahrelghazali individuals — the first early hominins excavated at two sites in Chad. Professor Julia Lee-Thorp from Oxford University with researchers from Chad, France and the US analysed the carbon isotope ratios in the teeth and found the signature of a diet rich in foods derived from C4 plants.

Professor Lee-Thorp, a specialist in isotopic analyses of fossil tooth enamel, from the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, said: “We found evidence suggesting that early hominins, in central Africa at least, ate a diet mainly composed of tropical grasses and sedges. No African great apes, including chimpanzees, eat this type of food despite the fact it grows in abundance in tropical and subtropical regions. The only notable exception is the savannah baboon which still forages for these types of plants today. We were surprised to discover that early hominins appear to have consumed more than even the baboons.”

The research paper suggests this discovery demonstrates how early hominins experienced a shift in their diet relatively early, at least in Central Africa. The finding is significant in signalling how early humans were able to survive in open landscapes with few trees, rather than sticking only to types of terrain containing many trees. This allowed them to move out of the earliest ancestral forests or denser woodlands, and occupy and exploit new environments much farther afield, says the study.

The fossils of the three individuals, ranging between three million and 3.5 million years old, originate from two sites in the Djurab desert. Today this is a dry, hyper-arid environment near the ancient Bahr el Ghazal channel which links the southern and northern Lake Chad sub-basins. However, in their paper the authors observe that at the time when Australopithecus bahrelghazali roamed, the area would have had reeds and sedges growing around a network of shallow lakes, with floodplains and wooded grasslands beyond.

Previously, it was widely believed that early human ancestors acquired tougher tooth enamel, large grinding teeth and powerful muscles so they could eat foods like hard nuts and seeds. This research finding suggests that the diet of early hominins diverged from that of the standard great ape at a much earlier stage. The authors argue that it is unlikely that the hominins would have eaten the leaves of the tropical grasses as they would have been too abrasive and tough to break down and digest. Instead, they suggest that these early hominins may have relied on the roots, corms and bulbs at the base of the plant.

Professor Lee-Thorp said: “Based on our carbon isotope data we can’t exclude the possibility that the hominins’ diets may have included animals that in turn ate the tropical grasses. But as neither humans nor other primates have diets rich in animal food, and of course the hominins are not equipped as carnivores are with sharp teeth, we can assume that they ate the tropical grasses and the sedges directly.”

Original article:
sciencedaily.com

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I just found this article I intended to post last October but somehow missed.
Thanks

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Topic hunter-gatherer behavior

By studying ancient landforms, archaeologists are uncovering evidence of a novel hunter-gatherer behavior

Many bays have been lost to development, but Johns Bay, located in Allendale County, South Carolina, is still viable and filled with water. Thousands of years ago, Archaic hunter-gatherers came to these pond-like bodies of water in the fall or winter to process large, wild birds that would migrate to the bays seasonally.
(Courtesy Christopher R. Moore/SRARP)
A steady warm breeze barely ruffles the high-rise canopy of tall, straight pine trees. Diffuse sunlight filters down to the ground. Underfoot, maypop vines, flaunting fancy lavender blossoms, slyly tangle with poison ivy on a crunchy carpet of pine needles patched with peek-a-boo white sand. A bird chirps. A gnat bites. A vehicle whirs along a distant unseen road. At first take it could all pass for an unremarkable stretch of Southeastern woods. But to archaeologists of the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program (SRARP), this is Flamingo Bay. It’s a shining example of an ancient landform, once a pond-like body of accumulated rainwater with the nontechnical name “Carolina bay,” where they are finding new knowledge of Middle Archaic hunter-gatherer sustenance, industry, and lifestyles.

Mark J. Brooks, an archaeologist at the University of South Carolina and director of SRARP, trudges across the slight rise of sand that surrounds the bay as he gestures toward the scattered handful of blue, white, and orange flags stuck in the dry ground. Only the center of Flamingo Bay occasionally holds water these days. The flags indicate recent investigation. Brooks says, “From the samples we have taken we know that this area had a major concentration of food-processing activity. We have evidence that small groups of people returned here repeatedly, every fall or early winter.”

The archaeological record that Brooks and his colleagues have uncovered shows that hunter-gatherers at this bay, and perhaps others, stood notably apart from other prehistoric groups in their use of natural resources. In pre-agrarian times here, as elsewhere, people typically banded together to forage for food. They gravitated toward forests, plentifully supplied with game, deer being the main meat in their diet, and toward oceans, rivers, and streams for a steady harvest of fish and other seafood.

Brooks, though, and Christopher R. Moore, also a University of South Carolina and SRARP archaeologist, have discovered a sophisticated departure from these patterns. They have found artifacts along the edges of Carolina bays that are specifically associated with a well-organized system of preserving the meat of large migratory birds. Evidence shows that every autumn or winter people would return to the bay site, which reliably provided all the raw materials—including slow-combusting hickory nut shells, not practical for fuel but excellent for the smoking process—needed to stockpile great amounts of food. Underlying this activity would have been an understanding on the part of these prehistoric peoples that birds would arrive at Carolina bays at particular times of year and in great numbers.

Original article:
archaeology.org
By Margaret Shakespeare, a freelance writer living in New York City and Long Island.

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Topic: More on Neanderthal

The Lozoya River Valley, in the Madrid mountain range of Guadarrama, could easily be called “Neanderthal Valley,” says the paleontologist Juan Luis Arsuaga.

“It is protected by two strings of mountains, it is rich in fauna, it is a privileged spot from an environmental viewpoint, and it is ideal for the Neanderthal, given that it provided the with good hunting grounds.”

This is not just a hypothesis: scientists working on site in Pinilla del Valle, near the reservoir, have already found nine Neanderthal teeth, remains of bonfires and thousands of animal fossils, including some from enormous aurochs (the ancestor of cattle, each the length of two bulls), rhinoceros and fallow deer.

The Neanderthal is a human species that is well known and unknown at the same time. It is well known because numerous vestiges have been found from the time when they lived in Europe, between 200,000 and 30,000 years ago. But it is also unknown because of the many unresolved issues that keep cropping up, including, first and foremost: why did they become extinct just as our current species made an appearance on the continent?

Nobody knows for sure whether the Neanderthal was able to talk, or whether they shared territory with Homo sapiens, or whether both species ignored each other until one – ours – proliferated while the other got lost forever… Scientists in charge of the sites at Pinilla del Valle could make significant contributions to finding the answers to these and other questions about the lives of the Neanderthal people.

“There are around 15 sites in Spain: in the Cantabrian mountain range, along the eastern Mediterranean coast and in Andalusia, but none on the plateau, where there are no limestone formations and no adequate caves to preserve human remains for thousands of years,” adds Arsuaga. But Pinilla del Valle is an exception to the rule. “There is limestone here. It was like a cap made of stone under which the Neanderthal presumably took refuge to prepare for the hunt, to craft their tools, to eat… It’s not that they lived inside in the sense of a home; they wandered in the fields, and this was probably more like a base camp to take refuge when they needed to.”

It is clear that the Neanderthals took care of their dead in some way

“The site, which has great potential, extends some 150 meters and we are now working in three areas: the cave of Camino, the refuge of Navalmaillo and the cave of Des-Cubierta, which cover three different time frames,” says Enrique Baquedano, director of the Regional Archeology Museum in Madrid.

It was on the floor of Des-Cubierta that the Neanderthal must have placed the dead body of a small child aged two-and-a-half to three years old. They placed two slabs of stone and an aurochs horn on top, and set the body on fire. Baquedano explains that they found some of the child’s teeth – they call it a little girl, although they have no scientific evidence of its gender – as well as a piece of coal that turned up just a few days ago and which will enable precise dating. “Complete burials, with a clear structure that allows [researchers] to reconstruct behaviors, is a very rare thing in any part of the world,” says Arsuaga, who is also co-director of the excavations at the major prehistoric site of Atapuerca.

Standing next to him, Baquedano points at the spot where they found the coal from that bonfire, perhaps a ritual of some sort, and which will be subjected to carbon 14-dating techniques.

“We are convinced that it was an intentional deposition of the girl’s body; perhaps there were more burials at Neanderthal sites but they were not recognized as such,” says the museum director.

The fact is, the Neanderthal took care of their dead in some way. Traces of them have also been found in France and Israel.

Here at the Madrid valley, archeologists and paleontologists get busier as the days go by. A total of 70 people scattered over three sites dig among the sediment with chisels and brushes; they clear through the rock with jackhammers, they wash kilograms of extracted earth so that not even the smallest noteworthy piece will go by unnoticed, and every excavated centimeter is documented. This scientific work has been going on every summer for a decade, “for 40 days, in two shifts,” explains César Laplana of the regional museum.

The nine Neanderthal teeth discovered so far are between 60,000 and 90,000 years old, and several of them appeared in what must have been hyena dens, where the animals probably devoured and destroyed the bodies. “Teeth are the most resistant of all organic tissue; they keep better than the rest of the skeleton, and they provide lots of information about the diet, the diseases, and the passage from childhood to adulthood,” continues Laplana.

“The Neanderthal lived both in the interglacial and the glacial periods,” explains Arsuaga. After an ice age that made half of Europe look like Greenland does today, the interglacial period began around 130,000 years ago with a climate that was actually warmer than today’s; then, 85,000 years ago the last ice age began, ending 11,500 years ago. The excavations at Pinilla corresponding to the interglacial period produced many remains of fallow deer (a Mediterranean species), tortoises, porcupines and brown bears, as opposed to the cave bears of the glacial period.

Over at the cave of Des-Cubierta, Javier Somoza, a student at Salamanca University, walks up to Baquedano and shows him an artifact wrapped in white paper: it is a tool that he has just found in the ground. “Yes, I was very excited,” says Somoza about the bit of pink quartz.

Thousands of stone tools have already been found. “The best stone for sculpting is flint, but there’s none in this area, so they had to make do with what they had handy. So they adapted their technique to quartz. “It’s worse, but it works and it represents an admirable technological adaptation.”

And what about hunting? “They used wooden lances with fire-hardened tips.”

“Here, in this valley so full of rich sites, we can find out lots of things about the Neanderthal, their lives and their deaths, their climate, their technology and their economy,” concludes the archeologist. “It’s just a matter of time.”

Original article:

elpais.com

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Topic Ancient Fiber

Native Americans of the desert Southwest subsisted on a diet that was much higher in fiber than our modern foods.

Prickley pear (pictured) was a food commonly consumed by ancient Native Americans.

THE GIST
  • Ancient humans ate significant quantities of fiber, but as our diet changed our gut didn’t keep up.
  • The findings come from analysis of ancient poop dating from A.D. 1125 and earlier.
  • The amount of fiber our diet contained in ancient times was up to sixteen times what we eat now.

The ancient Native Americans of the desert Southwest subsisted on a fiber-filled diet of prickly pear, yucca and flour ground from plant seeds, finds a new analysis of fossilized feces that may explain why modern Native Americans are so susceptible to Type II diabetes.

Thousands of years of incredibly fibrous foods, 20 to 30 times more fibrous than today’s typical diet, with low impact on the blood sugar likely left this group vulnerable to the illness when richer Anglo foods made their way to North America, said study researcher Karl Reinhard, a professor of forensic sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“When we look at Native American dietary change within the 20th century, the more ancient traditions disappeared.” Reinhard told LiveScience. “They were introduced to a whole new spectrum of foods like fry-bread, which has got a super-high glycemic index.”

The glycemic index of a food is a measure of how fast its energy is absorbed into the bloodstream. It’s measured on a scale of 1 to 100, with 1 being the slowest absorbing with the least effect on blood sugar. The native people who lived in the deserts of Arizona would have likely eaten traditional stews with glycemic indexes around 23, Reinhard found. Foods scoring lower than 55 are considered “low-GI” foods.

Modern food and modern disease

Members of Southwest Native American tribes are more susceptible than Caucasians to Type II diabetes, which happens when the body either doesn’t produce enough insulin to break down sugar from food, or when the body’s cells fail to recognize the insulin it does produce.

Researchers have long hypothesized that a “thrifty gene” (or, more likely, genes) acquired through feast and famine makes Native American populations more prone to this chronic disease. The idea is that people who were able to rapidly adapt to both lean times and times of plenty would have done better in ancient times. Today, the modern diet has rendered famine rare in the developed world, but the body continues to respond to times of plenty as if starvation is around the corner. Diabetes and obesity can result.

Reinhard and his colleagues now suggest that feast and famine may not be necessary for the “thrifty gene” hypothesis to make sense. Basically, Reinhard said, an extremely low-calorie, high-fiber diet made the ancient Native American gut a paragon of efficiency. With the arrival of whites, the diet changed faster than physiology could keep up with it. In other words, the digestive system didn’t evolve for abundant, high-GI foods.

High-fiber diet

To find solid evidence of what ancient Southwestern tribes actually ate, Reinhard turned to what he called “the most intimate residues from archaeological sites” — fossilized poop. Known as coprolites, these fossils contain a record of their creator’s most recent meals.

The researchers analyzed 25 coprolites from Antelope Cave in northwestern Arizona, a dwelling that was seasonally occupied for thousands of years. These particular coprolites (20 of which turned out to be human) date back to at least A.D. 1150 and earlier. The dates make the cave a perfect time to look at the transition from a total hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one supplemented by some agriculture, Reinhard said.

“It bridges two different dietary traditions, one which has been around for several thousands of years with one that was relatively newly introduced at the time the cave was occupied,” he said.

The analysis revealed that these ancient people chowed down on flour made from maize and wild sunflower and other seeds, as well as on fibrous succulent plants such as yucca and prickly pear. This diet was higher fiber than anything modern people eat. The feces were three-quarters fiber by volume, Reinhard said, and these Native Americans were probably eating between 200 and 400 grams of the indigestible stuff per day. For comparison, the Institute of Medicine recommends 25 grams of fiber a day for the modern woman, and 38 grams for men. The average adult manages only about 15 grams.

Modern agriculture has favored plants with less fiber, Reinhard said, so even the ancient tribes’ maize would have been more fibrous than the corn we eat today.

“When I was a young researcher I tried to replicate this diet, and it was impossible,” Reinhard said. “I was essentially eating all day to try to get this fiber.”

Evolving diets

In addition, Reinhard and his colleagues reported in the August issue of the journal Current Anthropology, the Southwest Native American diet had a very low glycemic index. Prickly pear pads, a common staple, rate only a 7 on the 100-point GI scale. The highest-GI food these tribes would have had was maize, the researchers found, which would fall at about 57 on the scale — just two points shy of qualifying as a “low-GI” food today. (Modern sweet corn on the cob has a GI of 60; processed foods like white rice and bagels are in the 90-95 range.)

In addition, prickly pear has a known blood-sugar-lowering effect, Reinhard said. Agave and yucca plants would have also had minimal effect on the blood sugar while providing yet more fiber. Rabbit, including bone fragments, was also found in the fecal fossils.

“The change we have undergone over generations has been toward less appreciation of really resistant foods and more toward what is called a ‘Pablum’ diet,” Reinhard said. “It’s kind of like going from chewing on pumpkin seeds to chewing on oatmeal.”

The diet seen in the desert Southwest up to just 1,000 years ago is likely similar to what people ate the whole world over up until about 15,000 years ago, Reinhard said. And then humans invented agriculture, cultivating wheat, millet, rice and other grains.

“These plants, as they were cultivated, replaced the really, really ancient foods that everybody ate thousands and thousands of years ago with calorie-dense foods, or grains that could be turned into calorie-dense foods like grains, rice cakes, and, of course, alcoholic beverages,” Reinhard said.

Original article:

discoverynews

July 25, 2012

Content provided by Stephanie Pappas,
LiveScience Senior Writer

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Topic: Teeth and the ancient diet

Many ancient human teeth, including specimens tens of thousands of years old, still hold onto tiny pieces of food — and even bacteria. Anthropologists are studying the tartar attached to ancient human teeth to learn more about the plants people ate and the pathogens they carried long ago.

Tartar, also known as dental calculus, is a hard substance that toothpaste ads promise to obliterate and dentists scrape away. It builds up on after solidifies. A dentist might scrape away 30 milligrams of a patient’s calculus each visit. Sets of teeth from hundreds or thousands of years ago might have up to 20 times that much, a mass roughly equal to a small paperclip.

Scientists are only beginning to explore the variety of materials caught in calculus, which preserves organic materials that are often fleetingly preserved in other settings. This allows scientists to address questions that are very difficult to answer using established archaeological methods.

“There are so many time periods in human history where we have theories about what they ate but we really have no idea,” said Amanda Henry, a physical anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, Germany.

Seeds and grains often degrade slowly and typically last even longer. But finding direct evidence of is more difficult. Vegetables such as cabbage and carrots were important foods in , but evidence to confirm their consumption is hard to come by. Reconstructing the full diet for people living in earlier periods is even more difficult.

“We know very little about the vegetable and salad portion of the diet,” said Christina Warinner, an archaeological geneticist at University of Zurich’s Centre for Evolutionary Medicine, in Switzerland. “[Studying calculus] could potentially be an entirely new way of approaching that.”

Small Fossils, Big Information

Calculus contains pollen grains and microscopic fossilized plant pieces called phytoliths, in addition to starch grains and even bacteria. Fragments of bacterial DNA found in calculus can help identify specific pathogens that were once present in the mouths of ancient people.

The plant evidence can be definitive enough to suggest the species that was consumed, or it may suggest what part of a plant was eaten, such as a fruit or leaf. This can help track the use, spread and evolution of food plants, including agricultural varieties, through time and space.

Researchers can examine the calculus directly on the tooth with a microscope. But for further analysis, they carefully scrape the material off ancient teeth with common dental tools to avoid contaminating the samples with modern material. From that scraped-off tartar, they then carefully remove non-organic material to concentrate the food remnants.

Scientists use microscopes and molecular methods to examine the samples. Examining the small bits of food they find is challenging some long-held beliefs about ancient peoples and helping to answer significant questions.

Henry has been studying Neanderthal diet and working to confirm her initial results that they ate plants regularly. Some researchers have long argued that Neanderthals were primarily carnivores who depended on meat and fat.

“We were able to show that [Neanderthals] did eat plant foods and they processed these foods,” said Henry. “It’s the first time we have evidence of what those plant foods are.”

Henry and her collaborators identified grass seeds, tubers that may have been related to water lilies, and at least in a location in present-day Iraq, the foods had been cooked.

Jaime Pagan-Jimenez, a Puerto Rico-based anthropologist working at Leiden University in the Netherlands, recently began analyzing calculus to obtain more evidence in his study of diets throughout the Caribbean islands.

Pagan-Jimenez had already studied starch grains found in artifacts used to process and cook foods, concluding that the people who first lived on the Caribbean islands were, in at least many cases, cultivating a variety of food plants, such as corn, sweet potato, beans, and more. His findings also challenged the idea that the area’s main food crop was manioc, a root also known as cassava or yucca. The new technique allows him to confirm what foods actually reached the mouth.

“We had the chance of seeing directly in the human tooth what plants they were eating at different time periods and sub-regions in the Caribbean islands,” Pagan-Jimenez wrote to Inside Science in an email.

That evidence changes the interpretation of other archaeological findings.

“It turns out that these tools that we’ve called manioc scrapers were not at all used for processing manioc,” said Henry.

Starch grains, such as those found in cooking pots, are well-established evidence of food processing and consumption. Scientists also look for clues about food consumption in the atomic makeup of bones and tooth enamel. However, calculus allows researchers to attain a greater level of detail.

“For starch grains studies in archeology, human dental calculus is the last piece of the ‘broad picture’ for acquiring direct information on the whole process of plant preparation and consumption as food,” said Pagan-Jimenez.

Health Hints

Dental plaque contains all manner of information about an individual’s health. It can contain clues about tuberculosis, stomach ulcers and more. Since calculus is formed from plaque, it seemed natural to Warinner to investigate the preservation of health information.

“It seems like a great way to actually access so much health information about ancient peoples that otherwise has been really, really hard to do,” said Warinner.

One significant modern change is a highly processed diet, which is often accompanied by fluoridated water. How does the state of modern people’s mouths differ from that of their ancestors? Because calculus can preserve oral bacteria, it opens new doors to scientists.

“One of the things we don’t know very well is what actually is our natural or ancestral state of health in our mouth,” said Warinner. “We can look at specific dental diseases and try to understand how they have changed over time.”

Warinner said that in addition to bacteria from the mouth, calculus also contains bacteria that originated in other areas of the body. These bacteria can provide more information on the array of tiny organisms that inhabit the human body, called the microbiome. Doctors are becoming increasingly aware of the relationship between this collection of flora and human health. Data gathered from genetic material found in samples such as calculus is termed metagenomic, and can greatly enhance scientists’ ability to research the historical microbiome.

“[Calculus] allows us unparalleled access to these more distant organ systems that we’ve almost never had access to in the archaeological record except in some exceptional circumstances,” said Warinner.

“The idea that metagenomic data from archaeological dental calculus can provide a glimpse of ancient human diet and health is very clever, and if validated, it will be a very exciting discovery!” wrote Cecil Lewis, a molecular anthropologist at the University of Oklahoma, in an email.

Warinner is currently studying samples from medieval Germany, in part to establish the reliability of calculus research. She’s looking at pathogens, including those that cause ailments such as colds and flus. The method may allow Warinner and others to compare how certain diseases affected people throughout history and across continents.

“We could look at how their virulence has changed over time,” said Warinner. “Were they more virulent in the past than today, or not?”

Clean Sample

Techniques to deduce ancient diets and disease from dental calculus are still being established and verified.  Molecules of DNA in dental calculus are often degraded, and the more time has passed, the lower the chance that the sample is pristine, which makes interpretation more complicated.

Scientists are also uncertain as to how comprehensively calculus can portray diet. Not all foods that are consumed will be found in calculus. Although finding evidence that a food was in a person’s mouth is significant, it doesn’t necessarily explain how often the food was eaten, or what proportion of the overall diet it represented.

“We must be conscious that ancient people did not only eat starchy seeds or tubers; they also ate leaves, flowers, and so on,” said Pagan-Jimenez.

“What percentage of a person’s diet is represented in that record? We don’t know,” said Henry. “Any technique, you need to work out all the bugs before all academics buy it.

Scientists are still forming a full picture of all the components found inside ancient dental calculus, said Warinner.

Henry said she planned to examine calculus “for other kinds of plant residues or even animal food residues.” She said that the technique may help solve an important mystery: when humans began cooking their food — answers currently range from a few hundred thousand to more than 1.5 million years ago.

Both Henry and Warinner said they planned to reveal more findings, about Neanderthal diet and respiratory pathogens, respectively, in the near future.

Original article:

phys.org

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