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Findings on Neanderthal oral microbiomes offer new clues on evolution, health

Original article in eurekalert.org

10-May-2021Peer-Reviewed Publication

Harvard University

Gorillas
image: Grauer’s gorilla specimens at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren (Belgium), showing typical dental calculus deposits on the teeth that are stained dark likely as a result of their herbivorous diet. view more Credit: Katerina Guschanski

A new study looking at the evolutionary history of the human oral microbiome shows that Neanderthals and ancient humans adapted to eating starch-rich foods as far back as 100,000 years ago, which is much earlier than previously thought. 

The findings suggest such foods became important in the human diet well before the introduction of farming and even before the evolution of modern humans. And while these early humans probably didn’t realize it, the benefits of bringing the foods into their diet likely helped pave the way for the expansion of the human brain because of the glucose in starch, which is the brain’s main fuel source.

“We think we’re seeing evidence of a really ancient behavior that might have been part encephalization — or the growth of the human brain,” said Harvard Professor Christina Warinner, Ph.D. ’10. “It’s evidence of a new food source that early humans were able to tap into in the form of roots, starchy vegetables, and seeds.”

The findings come from a seven-year study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday that involved the collaboration of more than 50 international scientists. Researchers reconstructed the oral microbiomes of Neanderthals, primates, and humans, including what’s believed to be the oldest oral microbiome ever sequenced — a 100,000-year-old Neanderthal.

The goal was to better understand how the oral microbiome — a community of microorganisms in our mouths that help to protect against disease and promote health — developed since little is known about its evolutionary history.

“For a long time, people have been trying to understand what a normal healthy microbiome is,” said Warinner, assistant professor of anthropology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Sally Starling Seaver Assistant Professor at the Radcliffe Institute. “If we only have people today that we’re analyzing from completely industrialized contexts and that already have high disease burdens, is that healthy and normal? We started to ask: What are the core members of the microbiome? Which species and groups of bacteria have actually co-evolved with us the longest?”

The scientists analyzed the fossilized dental plaque of both modern humans and Neanderthals and compared them to those of humanity’s closest primate relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas, as well as howler monkeys, a more distant relative. 

Using newly developed tools and methods, they genetically analyzed billions of DNA fragments preserved in the fossilized plaque to reconstruct their genomes. It’s similar in theory to how archeologists painstakingly piece together ancient broken pots, but on a much larger scale.

The biggest surprise from the study was the presence of particular strains of oral bacteria that are specially adapted to break down starch. These strains, which are members of the genus Streptococcus, have a unique ability to capture starch-digesting enzymes from human saliva, which they then use to feed themselves. The genetic machinery the bacteria uses to do this is only active when starch is part of the regular diet. 

Both the Neanderthals and the ancient humans scientists studied had these starch-adapted strains in their dental plaque while most of the primates had almost no streptococci that could break down starch.

“It seems to be a very human specific evolutionary trait that our Streptococcus acquired the ability to do this,” Warinner said. 

The findings also push back on the idea that Neanderthals were top carnivores, given that the “brain requires glucose as a nutrient source and meat alone is not a sufficient source,” Warinner said.

Researchers said the finding makes sense because for hunter-gatherer societies around the world, starch-rich foods –underground roots, tubers (like potatoes), and forbs, as well as nuts and seeds, for example — are important and reliable nutrition sources. In fact, starch currently makes up about 60 percent of calories for humans worldwide.

“Its availability is much more predictable across the annual season for tropical hunter-gatherers,” said Richard W. Wrangham, Ruth B. Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology and one of the paper’s co-authors. “These new data make every sense to me, reinforcing the newer view about Neanderthals that their diets were more sapien-like than once thought, [meaning] starch-rich and cooked.”

The research also identified 10 groups of bacteria that have been part of the human and primate oral microbiome for more than 40 million years and are still shared today. While these bacteria may serve important and beneficial roles, relatively little is known about them. Some don’t even have names.

Focusing on Neanderthals and today’s humans, the analysis surprisingly showed the oral microbiome of both groups were almost indistinguishable. Only when looking at individual bacterial strains could they see some differences. For example, ancient humans living in Europe before 14,000 years ago during the Ice Age shared some bacterial strains with Neanderthals that are no longer found in humans today.

The differences and similarities from the study are all part of what makes us human, Warinner said. It also touches on the power of analyzing the tiny microbes that live in the human body, she said.

“It shows that our microbiome encodes valuable information about our own evolution that sometimes gives us hints at things that otherwise leave no traces at all,” Warinner said.

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On this day ten years ago..

via Ancient Rock Piles Reveal Early American Cuisine

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New discoveries made at the Klasies River Cave in South Africa’s southern Cape, where charred food remains from hearths were found, provide the first archaeological evidence that anatomically modern humans were roasting and eating plant starches, such as those from tubers and rhizomes, as early as 120,000 years ago.

Source: Earliest evidence of the cooking and eating of starch

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Discovery reveals plant-based menu of prehistoric man

 

Original Article:

popular- archaeology.com

780,000 year old remains of edible fruits and seeds discovered in the northern Jordan Valley. Credit: Yaakov Langsam

 

THE HEBREW UNIVERSITY OF JERUSALEM—A tiny grape pip (scale 1mm), left on the ground some 780,000 years ago, is one of more than 9,000 remains of edible plants discovered in an old Stone Age site in Israel on the shoreline of Lake Hula in the northern Jordan valley, dating back to the Acheulian culture from 1.75-0.25 million years ago. The floral collection provides rich testimony of the plant-based diet of our prehistoric ancestors.

While around the world remains of Paleolithic plants are scarce, this unique macro-botanical assemblage has allowed researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Bar Ilan University to study the vegetal diet of humans from early-mid-Pleistocene, which is central to understanding the evolution, adaptation and exploitation of the environment by hominins.
The findings were recovered during archeological excavations at the waterlogged site of Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, where the earliest evidence of human-controlled fire in western Asia was discovered in recent years.
Prof. Naama Goren-Inbar of the Institute of Archeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who conducted the excavations with colleagues, have long studied findings of hominid occupations in the Levantine Corridor, through which several hominin waves dispersed out of Africa.
In a research paper that will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on December 5, titled “The plant component of an Acheulian diet: a case study from Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, Israel”, Prof. Goren-Inbar reveals the discovery of the ancient macrobotanical remains, which for the first time indicate to the rich variety of plant assortments and subsistence opportunities that were available to the early humans on the transition from an African-based to a Eurasian diet.
“In recent years we were met with a golden opportunity to reveal numerous remains of fruits, nuts and seeds from trees, shrubs and the lake, alongside the remains of animals and man-made stone tools in one locality,” Prof. Goren-Inbar said.
Of the remains found on site, Prof. Goren-Inbar and Dr. Yoel Melamed of the Faculty of Life Sciences at Bar Ilan University have identified 55 species of edible plants, including seeds, fruits, nuts, leaves, stems, roots and tubers.

The findings, many of them minor in size, have been preserved for hundreds of thousands of years thanks to the damp conditions in the vicinity of the site, said Dr. Melamed. The basalts under and in the site were dated by Ar/Ar and the dates were further confirmed by results of paleomagnetic analyses.
“This region is known for the wealth of plants, but what surprised us were the sources of plant food coming from the lake. We found more than 10 species that existed here in prehistoric times but no longer today, such as two types of water nuts, from which seven were edible,” explained Dr. Melamed.

The site was submerged under the Jordan River and the Hula Lake in conditions of humidity and lack of oxygen, aided by the fast covering of layers of sediments, in which archaeologists also found stone tools and animal fossils.
Gesher Benot Ya’aqov is also the place where Prof. Goren-Inbar found the earliest evidence of the use of fire in Eurasia (LINK). “The use of fire is very important because a lot of the plants are toxic or inedible. Using fire, like roasting nuts and roots for example, allows the use of various parts of the plant and increases the diversity of the plant component of the Acheulian diet, alongside aquatic and terrestrial fauna,” said Prof. Goren-Inbar.
The use of fire and the availability of a diverse range of flora highlight the ability of prehistoric man to adjust to a new environment, to exploit the environment for his own benefit and to colonize beyond Africa.
Article Source: Hebrew University press release.

 

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Original article:

Live science
By Megan Gannon, Live Science Contributor 

This harvest came 3,000 years too late.
Hundreds of blackened potatoes were pulled out of the ground at a prehistoric garden in British Columbia, Canada.
Dating back to 3,800 years before the present, the garden was once underwater, in an ecologically rich wetland. And it shows signs of sophisticated engineering techniques used to control the flow of water to more efficiently grow wild wapato tubers, also known as Indian potatoes. 

Archaeologists led by Tanja Hoffmann of the Katzie Development Limited Partnership and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia uncovered the garden during roadwork on Katzie First Nation territory just east of Vancouver, near the Fraser River.

The site had been waterlogged for centuries, resulting in good preservation of plants and other organic materials like wooden tools that would have normally disintegrated over time.

In all, the researchers counted 3,767 whole and fragmented wapato plants (Sagittaria latifolia). Today, these plants are found in wetlands across southern Canada and the United States. Though they were not domesticated, the chestnut-sized roots had long been important to indigenous people, and they are mentioned in some of the first ethnographic accounts of the Pacific Northwest. Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, for example, were offered wapato roots at a native village near present-day Portland, Oregon. Clark wrote in his diary that the plant resembled a “small Irish potato,” and after being roasted, had “an agreeable taste and answers very well in place of bread.”

The ancient tubers that were found in British Columbia had turned dark brown to black in color, and some still had their starchy insides preserved. The garden had been covered in tightly packed, uniformly sized rocks, leading the researchers to conclude that this was a man-made deposit. Wapato plants can grow far underground, but an artificial rock “pavement” would have controlled how deep the roots could penetrate. This would have allowed the harvesters to more easily find the tubers and pull them out of the muck, Hoffmann and her colleagues wrote in their study, published Dec. 21 in the journal Science Advances.

Besides this waterlogged garden, the archaeological site also had a dry area where people would have lived. The researchers also found about 150 wooden tools that would have been used to dig out the plants.

Radiocarbon dates from the burnt wood found at the site suggest it dates back to 3,800 years ago and was abandoned 3,200 years ago.

The site could represent the first direct evidence of wetland plant cultivation in the prehistoric Pacific Northwest, according to the report on this discovery.

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