Acorns were starch enemies of Prehistoric tooth care, say museum cave explorers

By Ben Miller | 07 January 2014

A Natural History Museum expedition to Morocco suggests tooth decay in cavemen may have been caused by a starch-rich diet

A close-up photo of ancient teeth mottled brown against a black background
Carb-craving cavemen may have rotted their teeth with acorns, according to new research© Isabelle De Groote
Inspecting the dentures of 52 adult hunter-gatherers found in Taforalt, a set of protected Moroccan caves, the Natural History Museum team says that starchy foods, rather than the accepted link between oral disease and farming, could have caused tooth decay between 13,700 and 15,000 years ago.

Only three skeletons held no cavities. More than half of the surviving teeth suffered from decay, but domesticated plant crops may not be as culpable as experts previously presumed.

“These people's mouths were often affected by both cavities in the teeth and abscesses, and they would have suffered from frequent toothache,” lamented Isabelle De Groote, discussing deposits found beneath a deep layer of ash protecting charred plant remains and elaborate human burials towards the back of the caves.

Her colleague, Dr Louise Humphrey, of the museum, blamed acorns and pine nuts carried back to the enclaves.

“The acorns may have been boiled or ground to make flour,” she explained.

“Cooking the acorns would have added to their stickiness and abrasive particles from grindstones contributed to rapid tooth wear so that caries started to form on the roots of the teeth.

“Reliance on edible acorns as a staple food could account for the high caries prevalence at Taforalt, since frequent consumption of fermentable carbohydrates is a key factor in the initiation and progression of this disease.”

Experts from Oxford University and Morocco helped carry out the investigation.

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A photo of a set of light brown, craggy caves covered by grass and moss under blue sky
Known as the Grotte des Pigeons, the caves date from around 20,000 BC© Ali Freyne
A photo of a set of light brown, craggy caves covered by grass and moss under blue sky
An ash layer helped keep the remains well-preserved© Ian Cartwright
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