Evidence of Ancient Human Pollution Revealed in 400,000-Year-Old Teeth

First Posted: Jun 18, 2015 08:11 AM EDT

Scientists may have gotten one of their earliest looks at human pollution with the help of some teeth. They've taken a closer look at 400,000-year-old dental tartar on ancient teeth and have discovered a bit more about pollution during that time period.

In this latest study, the researchers examined the dental calculus of the teeth discovered at Qesem Cave near Tel Aviv. They found evidence of food and potential respiratory irritants entrapped in the dental calculus. More specifically, they discovered traces of charcoal, which may have resulted from smoke inhalation from indoor fires used for roasting meat on a daily basis. This is the earliest direct evidence for inhaled environmental pollution.

"Human teeth of this age have never been studied before for dental calculus," said Avi Gopher, one of the researchers, in a news release. "However, our international collaborators, using a combination of methods, found many materials entrapped within the calculus. Because the cave was sealed for 200,000 years, everything, including the teeth and its calculus, were preserved exceedingly well."

The analysis of the calculus revealed three major findings: charcoal from indoor fires, evidence for ingestion of essentially plant-based dietary components, and fibers that might have been used to clean teeth.

"This is the first evidence that the world's first indoor BBQs had health-related consequences," said Ran Barkai, one of the researchers. "We know that they hunted them, butchered them roasted them, broke their bones to extract their marrow, and even used the butchered bones as hammers to shape flint tools. Now we have direct evidence of a tiny piece of the plant-based part of their diet also, in addition to the animal meat and fat they consumed. We have come full circle in our understanding of their diet and hunting and gathering practices."

The findings are published in the journal Quaternary International.

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