The study of dental calculus to reconstruct dietary practices and paleoenvironments

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D’Agostino A., et al, “Neolithic dental calculi provide evidence for environmental proxies and consumption of wild edible fruits and herbs in central Apennines”, COMMUNICATION BIOLOGY|(2022)5:1384, Nature, Published: 19 December 2022.

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The study of the role of plant resources in pre-agricultural societies remains a central question in prehistory. Thus, archaeobotanists are looking for clues indicating the biodiversity of plants and their exploitation. Nevertheless, traces of the use of plants as food are rare on prehistoric sites. Organic material does not keep well and almost always disappears, except in special contexts. Searching for new types of biological markers to provide new information on the relationship between man and his environment during prehistory is a challenge. Nevertheless, recent methods based on the study of dental calculus have opened up new possibilities for studying past dietary behavior and reconstructing paleoenvironments. Dental tartar is the result of the mineralization of plaque adhering to the tooth surface. This gradual accumulation protects the organic microremains from damage. With this in mind, this article studies the dental calculus of individuals from the Mora Cavorso cave burial site (Italy), dated to the Early Neolithic period, as well as animals found on the site contemporary with this period. Three different methodological approaches are combined: light microscopy, gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and DNA sequencing. The different types of pollen and plant micro-rests found trapped in the tartar showed an exploitation of wild plant resources centered on Panicoideae, Triticeae, Rosaceae and Lamiaceae. From a paleoenvironmental point of view, the environment was predominantly dominated by wooded areas, with the presence of meadows that would have enabled these individuals to make a lasting home for themselves.

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