Microfossils in Ancient Plaque Reveal Mesolithic Diet

Dentistry Today


Analysis of the skeletal remains of a Mesolithic man found in a cave on a Croatian island has revealed microscopic fish and plant remains in dental plaque. Previous analysis of Mesolithic skeletal remains in this region has suggested a more varied Mediterranean diet consisting of terrestrial, freshwater, and marine food sources, not unlike what humans eat today.  

Although this find is the only example of a skeleton that provides evidence of both fish and plants in the diet of early people in this region, the discovery provides a significant insight into the lifestyle of Adriatic and Mediterranean foragers, according to the international team of researchers.

Microfossils embedded in the dental calculus revealed fish scale fragments and fish muscle fibers, as well as plants, which had not been identified in skeletal remains in this part of the Mediterranean before. Finding both ancient plant and fish deposits teeth further demonstrates the value of dental remains in understanding human evolution, the researchers said.

“Whilst fishing during the Mesolithic period has been demonstrated by fish remains as well as fishing related technologies in the past, here, for the first time we have direct evidence that humans consumed these resources or used their teeth for descaling activities, which is very unique,” said Harry Robson, PhD, MA, of the University of York Department of Archaeology.

“The skeleton, which has been dated to the late eighth millennium BC, is also significant in terms of its bone chemistry. Using carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analysis, we were able to demonstrate that marine resources were a major component of the diet of this individual over a sustained period of time,” said Robson.

The team was unable to identify the fish scales, though they are thought to be very similar to tuna, mackerel, and gilthead sea bream. The male, aged between 30 and 40 years, appeared to have been purposely buried there despite the lack of a grave. Long-term consumption of marine resources is a rare find for this period and region, but further analysis of more skeletal finds may reveal it was common to early human diets.

“This is an exciting but surprising finding. We only have three skeletal remains from this period that demonstrate the long-term consumption of marine resources, so when you can identify microfossils of this kind, it can provide a great leap forward in our understanding,” said lead researcher Emanuela Cristiani, PhD, of the Sapienza University of Rome.

“Our data provides a novel perspective on forager diet in the Mediterranean region by revealing the role of marine organisms during the Mesolithic,” Cristiani said. “The recovery of starch granules from two wild grass groups in the dental calculus of the analyzed individual suggests that energy-rich plants were a part of the Holocene forager dietary habits in the region.”

The study, “Dental Calculus and Isotopes Provide Direct Evidence of Fish and Plant Consumption in Mesolithic Mediterranean,” was published by Scientific Reports.

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