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10 March 2007
Unbrushed teeth reveal ancient diets

Ancient tartar-encrusted teeth may be a biological gold mine for scientists, thanks to a new technique for extracting food particles from teeth that once belonged to prehistoric humans. The method already has solved a mystery surrounding what early coastal Brazilians ate. In the future, similar studies may reveal clues about other ancient diets, particularly in areas with little plant preservation from earlier times.
     "There is great potential of dental calculus (old tooth tartar) analysis in past populations that inhabited tropical regions," said Sabine Eggers, co-author on a new study detailing the method. Eggers is a researcher in the Biological Anthropology Laboratory at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Eggers explained that ancient tartar could reveal what an individual ate in the days or weeks before death. Evidence suggests some prehistoric populations cleaned their teeth using fibrous foods and shell fragments as natural abrasives but many groups simply let nature take its course.
     To test the dental wash, the scientists gathered several teeth from Brazilian burials dating from 2,800 to 1,805 years ago. All were excavated at a southeastern coastal site called Sambaqui Jabuticabeira II. The site has yielded several large piles of mollusk shells mixed with other debris, which are associated with human activity. The researchers swirled recovered teeth in the solution to loosen the tartar. To isolate the particles in the tartar, the scientists strained and spun the solution in a centrifuge. They found three types of microfossils. Most common were starch grains from tubers. The researchers also found diatoms, microscopic algae used as a food source by marine organisms, and phytoliths, tiny mineral particles produced by plants. The first two microfossils suggest the individual's last meals likely consisted of shellfish accompanied by some sort of tuber.
     Although the dental wash was successful, it made some of the ancient teeth brittle, while others turned bright white. Since scientists hope to leave specimens in a condition as close to the original as possible, the researchers suggested the dental wash recipe requires further tinkering. They also said particles might be removed using sound waves.
     Sheila Souza, a scientist at Brazil's National School of Public Health, said that she and colleague Veronica Wesolowski have also been recovering particulate matter from ancient teeth. "It is really new to try the washing technique proposed by the researchers. We are really opening a big, new field to improve prehistoric reconstructions about the Sambaquis diet and lifestyle with calculus and microfossils," she said.

Source: Discovery Channel (2 March 2007)

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