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Morocco Cave

Stone Age foragers had passion for sweet acorns, causing tooth decay

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A new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that ancient hunter-gatherers had a passion for carbohydrate-rich snacks, such as sweet acorns, which caused extensive tooth decay, tooth loss, and other dental problems. While eating nuts and acorns may have helped hunter-gatherers survive 15,000 years ago in northern Africa, it also had its consequences.

The research comes from the discovery of skeletons unearthed in the Grotte des Pigeons cave in northern Morocco.  Although more than 100 remains have been excavated from the cave over the last one hundred years, study co-author Louise Humphrey and her colleagues found a new patch of 14 burials in the back of the cave.

Ochre-stained beads and other artefacts have shown that humans occupied the cave intermittently from at least 80,000 years ago till about 10,000 years ago, with people living in the front of the cave and burying their dead in the back.  Analysis of sediments at the front of the cave revealed that the ancient people feasted on snails, pine nuts and acorns, which might have tasted a bit like sweet chestnuts. There were so many remnants of acorns that researchers came to the conclusion that they must have been harvested and stored for eating as a staple food all year long.

The scientists analysed the teeth from the cave skeletons, which date to between 15,000 and 13,900 years ago. They found that half the teeth show evidence of severe tooth decay, almost all of them had cavities, and many also had abscesses that ate holes through their jaws. Humphreys believes that the sweet nuts provided food for Streptococcus mutans, the plaque-causing bacteria responsible for tooth decay. 

"They would have suffered from frequent tooth ache and bad breath," said co-author Isabelle DeGroote of Liverpool John Moores University. 

However, the scientists have suggested that the group of ancient people found in this cave may be an exception and not a rule in terms of the quantity of teeth-damaging foods they ate. For example, previous studies had found that, while about 90% of adults in the US suffer from cavities, less than 2% of Stone Age foragers had cavities.

By April Holloway

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