The genome in ancient tartar reveals the diet in prehistoric Italy. The data shows when cereals came onto the menu – and meat suddenly disappeared.
The change in human cultures from foraging nomads to early farmers also allowed the bacteria in dental plaque to evolve. As a team led by Andrea Quagliariello from the University of Padua reports, fossil tartar can be used to understand the dietary changes over the last 30,000 years of human history. For their study, which has now been published in “Nature Communications”, the working group combined bacterial genetic material from fossil tartar from a total of 76 people from central Italy with other findings. The results show not only that the transition to farming was slow, but also that milk was a regular part of the Neolithic diet. In addition, pathogens of dental diseases such as caries become more frequent over the entire examination period.
Using the bacterial genetic material extracted from the tartar, the working group identified which microbes played a role in the oral flora. Tiny food fragments that also come from the tartar also provide direct information about the diet of the respective individuals. Archaeological findings such as traces of food in ceramics complement the findings. Quagliariello’s team concludes that the oral microbiomes indicate two transitions in diet.
While oral bacteria from samples from the Palaeolithic up to 31,000 years ago show a meat-rich diet and starch granules found in tartar come from a wide range of plants, the variety of starch granules decreased significantly in the Neolithic period around 8200 to 6000 years ago. According to the starch residues, the roots of water lilies were also on the menu in the Paleolithic Age, but later known types of grain predominated. This fits with archaeological evidence that locates the spread of agriculture in this period. In addition, the oral bacteria of the Neolithic can also metabolize lactose – which indicates milk as a regular part of the diet.
Archaeological finds, however, as well as the bacteria found in dental plaque, indicate that there was a great deal of nutritional continuity between the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. Food sources remained diverse, and meat played an important role in the diet. The second transition at the end of the Neolithic and the beginning of the Copper Age about 6000 years ago, on the other hand, is much more drastic. From this time there are indications of a diet that is significantly lower in protein and richer in vegetable carbohydrates. The shift in the metabolism of the oral bacteria is similar to changes that are observed in vegan people, the working group notes. In addition, bacterial groups associated with tooth and gum diseases that we still know today – for example tooth decay and periodontal disease – increase sharply in this episode. History – Göbekli Tepe: Insights into the Turkish Stone Age Temple