What Does 400,000-Year-Old Tartar Tell Us?

You can learn a lot about people from looking at their teeth.

This is not news to you. Nor is it to archaeologists who are discovering more and more information about the lives of early human species from studying their teeth.

In a July 2015 article published in Scientific Reports, researchers claim to have evidence of the earliest known dental caries intervention from the Late Upper Paleolithic period. For those of you who aren't up-to-speed on prehistoric periodization, that's approximately 14,000 years ago. The tooth, a lower right third molar, belonged to a (approx.) 25-year-old man of the Villabruna species whose remains were recovered from a site in Italy in 1988. Scanning Electron Microscopy revealed patterns of striation and enamel chipping on the tooth that match those made in in-vitro tests. The researchers concluded:

Based on in vitro experimental replication and a complete functional reconstruction of the Villabruna dental arches, we confirm that the identified striations and the associated extensive enamel chipping on the mesial wall of the cavity were produced ante-mortem by pointed flint tools during scratching and levering activities.

If a 14,000 year old carious lesion doesn't impress you, perhaps 400,000 year old tartar will. A group of researchers analyzed the dental calculus from teeth found in the Qesem Cave near Tel Aviv, Israel. (The Qesem Cave site was discovered in 2000; it is believed that it was completely sealed for 200,000 years, thus the artifacts and remains inside are very well-preserved.)

Despite misgivings about what kind of information could be derived from such an old specimen, researchers found in the calculus traces of charcoal from indoor fires—the earliest evidence of humanmade pollution, essential fatty acids possibly from nuts and seeds, starch particles and fibers that may have been from raw materials or used to clean teeth. One of the professors leading the research stated:

"Our findings are rare—there is no other similar discovery from this time period…. The charcoal and starch findings give us a more comprehensive idea of how these people lived their lives—and this broader view came directly from their teeth."

It's amazing how much a cavity and tartar buildup can tell us.

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