Plaque Attack: How Food Fought Back

Not really “fought,” persay, but It rhymed so I typed it. Anyway, this post is about: Dental Calculus! Which I chose for two reasons: 1) It’s interesting and 2) I didn’t get to show you guys the picture of calculus in Methods the other day.

More importantly, this post is about John Hawks’ blog, which is phenomenal – I explored it for a long time trying to figure out what I wanted to talk about! There’s a lot happening over there.

Anywho, I’m going to be talking about THIS post by John Hawks titled “Tartar Control and Neandertal Plant Use.” First thing’s first. Here’s the picture I didn’t get to show you that is a great example of calculus:

Mmm, dinner!

So, see all that stuff around the bottom of the tooth enamel? That’s hardened plaque, AKA calculus. As plaque hardens, it builds up in layers, which encourages further buildup. As I’m sure you’ve heard from your dentist and tooth paste commercials, this isn’t ideal. Luckily for us, our pre-TV friends didn’t have the Wise Sage Crest or Grandmother Colgate to tell them that, so here we are left with oodles of information about what these cool cats ate (hopefully not cats). Calculus has remnants of bacteria, organic material, and food bits that the individual ate during their lifetime (AMAZING!) and can be examined to identify the traces of ancient foods.

Phytoliths are inorganic structures which come from specific species or type of plant, and what’s more, they last for a ridiculous amount of time. Also neat: the granules that a lot of plants store their starches in show specific changes when they are heated/cooked in liquid, so they can provide evidence that ancient people were cooking!

Shanidar Cave is located in the Zagros Mountains in Iraq, and produced skeletons of nine Neandertals that varied in age and also skeletal completeness. Skeleton 3 (Shanidar 3)’s teeth provided Amanda Henry and her colleagues with calculus, which they then began to examine for diet.

For some reason, Neandertals have been stereotyped as eating a disproportionately high amount of meat for being hunter-gatherers. And as dutiful anthropologists, we know that most hunter-gatherer groups relied more on the gathering aspect than the risky business of hunting. Neandertal teeth, though, tell a different tale: they ate about 90% meat according to stable isotope analysis.

According to Henry and Shanidar 3, though, Neandertals definitely ate a substantial amount of barley – and cooked at that! They also found legume, tuber and date palm remnants. However, this only tells us that they did in fact, eat these things. It doesn’t provide any sort of ratio or proportion. So maybe Neandertals had a higher proportion of non-meat in their diets, or maybe Shanidar 3 was just particularly health conscious. Either way, calculus can tell us a lot about the way past people lived their lives and how it affected their health. And also that they’d probably be down with a Meat Lover’s Pizza.


2 Replies to “Plaque Attack: How Food Fought Back”

  1. Seriously, how do you NOT vom looking at that stuff? And while I could look this up myself, what are the date ranges for Shanidar? I also wonder if drink remnants show up in the calculus (I’m thinking Neader-Pale Ale here)?

  2. This makes me wonder about the antiquity of kissing. On the one hand, evo psy suggests kissing is an evolved mechanism to test the health of your potential partner before, well, you know. On the other hand, groups like the Canela, who are characterized by their permissive sexuality, do not kiss much because, uh, it’s gross. People tend to have bad breath. Now add, er, calculus, &, well, as Kara puts it. So think about that while we’re eating BBQ tonight & it’s getting stuck between your teeth. If it weren’t for our Nacireman ritual heritage, maybe you too could show up in a thank-god-s/he-didn’t-brush-geeking-on-anthropology blog of the future some day.