70,000 years of dietary changes revealed by world's oldest cooked leftovers

After reading this, ask yourself: What would I want biologists to discover about my breakfast, a thousand years from now?
Sade Agard
70,000 years of dietary changes
70,000 years of dietary changes

Kabukcu et al./ Quagliarie l lo et al. 

Two studies shed light on how ancient diets changed as humans transitioned from Neanderthals right through to the Palaeolithic, Neolithic, and Copper Ages.

The world's oldest evidence of cooked food belongs to 70 000-year-old Neanderthals 

70,000 years of dietary changes revealed by world's oldest cooked leftovers
Pulse-rich charred plant food remains from Shanidar Cave

The first study, published in Antiquity, offers the world's oldest evidence of burned food remnants. Thought to be about 70,000 years old, these were recovered from the Shanidar Cave site, a Neanderthal dwelling 500 miles north of Baghdad in the Zagros Mountains. 

Significantly, the "findings are the first real indication of complex cooking – and thus of food culture – among Neanderthals," said Chris Hunt, a professor of cultural paleoecology at Liverpool John Moores University, who coordinated the excavation.

Neanderthals had a taste for "nutty" pancakes 

70,000 years of dietary changes revealed by world's oldest cooked leftovers
A comparison of modern humans and neanderthals: The excavation locations

Using seeds collected from the caverns nearby, Hunt and his colleagues have even attempted to reproduce one of the recipes. "It made a sort of pancake-cum-flatbread, which was really very palatable – a sort of nutty taste," Hunt said.

The group also examined ancient burned food fragments found in southern Greece's Franchthi Cave. This region was inhabited by early modern people about 12,000 years ago, using a scanning electron microscope.

Direct evidence that both Neanderthals and early modern humans consumed plants- and meat 

70,000 years of dietary changes revealed by world's oldest cooked leftovers
Artist's impression of Homo neanderthalensis

"We present evidence for the first time of soaking and pounding pulse seeds by both Neanderthals and early modern humans (Homo sapiens) at both sites and during both phases at Shanidar Cave," said Dr. Ceren Kabukcu, an archaeobotanist at the University of Liverpool, who led the study.

Additionally, the study adds to the growing body of evidence that early modern humans and Neanderthals consumed plants and meat. Pulses like lentils and wild mustard were frequently paired with wild grasses and nuts.

Contrary to most modern cooking practices, Neanderthals don't seem to have bashed their seeds to remove the outer layer, which largely removes the bitter-tasting components. This could imply that they sought to keep the natural flavors of the pulses.

A second study analyzing calcified plaque from 76 human samples dating from 31,000 BC to 2,200 BC

70,000 years of dietary changes revealed by world's oldest cooked leftovers
Ancient tooth plaque reveals tooth decline through the ages

A second of which published in Nature successfully retraced dietary shifts and dental health in Paleolithic, Neolithic, and Copper Age individuals by analyzing calcified plaque from 76 human samples dating from 31,000 BC to 2,200 BC, according to a recent study published in Nature. 

Notably, the findings suggest that while Paleolithic humans tend to demonstrate signs of good oral health, Neolithic and Copper Age humans had higher rates of oral diseases like gum infections and cavities. 

The switch to modern agriculture caused the teeth of ancient people to rot

They argue that as humans transitioned from hunting and gathering towards farming, this encouraged the growth of certain types of bacteria, leading to poor dental health. 

Surprisingly, dental plaque does have good uses. Besides harboring millions of bacteria and contributing to tooth decay, calcified dental plaque or dental calculus can act as a porthole into the distant past.

For a group of Italian scientists, ancient tooth plaque samples spanning 30 000 years revealed not only did farming have a considerable impact on human nutrition but dental health too. 

From the introduction of fermentation and milk to, finally, a reliance on carbohydrates 

Andrea Quagliariello and colleagues analyzed the oral microbiomes of 76 individuals who lived in prehistoric Italy during the upper Paleolithic (31,000-11,000 BC), Neolithic (6,200-4,000 BC), and Copper Ages using DNA from ancient dental calculus (3,500–2,200 BC). 

They integrated these data with archaeological data and microscopic food fragments, which were also discovered in tooth calculus. The authors were able to pinpoint dietary changes that ranged from a focus on hunting through the introduction of fermentation and milk to, finally, a reliance on carbohydrates associated with an agriculture-based diet using data spanning over 30,000 years. 

The researcher's even found ancient fragments of food in the plaque

70,000 years of dietary changes revealed by world's oldest cooked leftovers
Profile of a mandible from a Southern Italian Neolithic sample

Significantly, the authors also connected changes in microbiota with evidence of food consumption (fragments of food in plaque) as well as food processing (food residue found on grindstones and animal remains).

While the study was limited to the Central-South Italian peninsula, the researchers discovered a trend in their samples. That is, the most common 49 bacterial species preserved in the calcified dental plaques changed dramatically as humans transitioned to farming, which took place around 6,200 BC in Italy. 

Campylobacter and Capnocytophaga bacteria- known for gum disease- became increasingly common through the ages 

Bacteria, including species of Campylobacter and Capnocytophaga—some of which can clot together and cause gum disease — were only weakly present in Paleolithic human samples. Still, this species became increasingly common throughout the Neolithic Period and peaked at the end of the Copper Age samples. 

Well, now that that's all said and done, what will be your thoughts the next time you brush your teeth? Unless you're part of the 2 percent of people in the world that don't brush their teeth, maybe give those harder-to-reach teeth slightly more attention. Or not.

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