Truth in Teeth

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Cavemen, it turns out, ate their veggies, too, a new study shows.

Long thought to mainly subsist on a protein-based diet, researchers have found that the Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers who lived 15,000 years ago in what is now Morocco actually ate more vegetables than meat.

In fact, these Late Stone Age humans were almost vegetarians, according to the findings of anthropologist Zineb Moubtahij of Germany’s Max Planck Institute and her team.

“This distinct dietary pattern challenges the prevailing notion of high reliance on animal proteins among pre-agricultural human groups,” the researchers wrote.

For years, researchers believed that ancient humans who lived before the rise of agriculture in the Neolithic period mainly survived on meat.

But using new methods available now, Moubtahij and her team studied the remains of pre-agricultural human hunter-gatherers known as Iberomaurusians, who lived at Taforalt Cave in northern Morocco at the end of the Pleistocene.

Even though most remains after thousands of years in the ground lack any soft tissue to study, the team examined 25 teeth and seven bone samples from 17 Iberomaurusian individuals found at the site, focusing on the isotopic ratios of zinc and strontium in tooth enamel, carbon and nitrogen in bone collagen, and amino acids from bones of both humans and animals recovered there.

From this isotopic analysis, they learned that the ancient humans – like the Neolithic farmers that came after them thousands of years later – got much of their protein from plant-based food.

The archeological team also found other evidence at the site that backs up their findings, for example grinding stones that could have been used to process nuts, and also a high incidence of cavities in the teeth that is consistent with a diet of acorns, pine nuts and legumes.

Researchers say these early humans probably turned to a plant-based diet because of the unavailability of meat at times.

The study, researchers added, is an important part of understanding the transition from hunting-gathering economies to agriculture-based ones, one of the most important dietary revolutions in human history.

“Our findings not only provide insights into the dietary practices of pre-agricultural human groups but also highlight the complexity of human subsistence strategies in different regions,” the authors wrote. “Understanding these patterns is crucial to unraveling the broader story of human evolution.”

Clarification: In Tuesday’s THE WORLD, BRIEFLY section, we said in our “Ruled Out” item that the African National Congress’ (ANC) biggest challenger in next week’s election is the uMkhonto weSizwe party, a political group formed by Jacob Zuma. While it is a main challenger – and spoiler – to the ANC, polls show that the Democratic Alliance is likely to lead the opposition to the ANC in the election even as analysts believe Zuma, despite being ineligible to run, may end up playing kingmaker.

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