The Diet of Mesolithic Hunter Gatherers

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By analysing the dental tartar in skeletal remains found at archaeological sites, Sapienza University, in collaboration with international research teams, has identified the significant contribution of fish and carbohydrates to the diet of the hunter gatherers inhabiting the Mediterranean area over 10,000 years ago. 

The international research team, directed by Prof. Emanuela Christiani from the Sapienza Department of Oral and Maxillo-Facial Sciences, has shed new light on the importance of fish and plants in the diet of the last hunter gatherers of the Mediterranean.

The results of the study, conducted as part of ERC Starting Grant Project “HIDDEN FOODS,” in collaboration with the University of York (BioArCh), the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America (Columbia University) and the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts, have been published on Scientific Reports.

The research team analysed the traces conserved on the teeth of a young man buried towards the end of the 8thcentury BC and found in the Vlakno Cave on the Isle of Dugi Otok in Croatia. Specifically, the study investigated the microfossils trapped in the mineralised dental tartar and compared the stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes found in skeletal remains with paleo-anthropological data. The analyses revealed microscopic fish residue: scale fragments and other tissues. 

“This material has never been isolated before in ancient tooth tartar,” explains Coordinator Emanuela Cristiani. “This is a true archaeological record that allows us to shed light on ancient diets. In fact, the typical focus has been on vegetal and animal remains.

The study on the carbon and nitrogen isotopes, in combination with the data provided by the dental tartar analysis, reveals the regular consumption of sea food, making the individual buried in the Vlakno Cave unique in comparison to other Mediterranean Mesolithic hunter gatherers. Moreover, the presence of grass starch granules in the tooth tartar suggests that the regional diet also included carbohydrate-rich plants.

“Our diet,” concludes Cristiani, “provide a new outlook on the diet of the individuals who inhabited the Mediterranean over 10,000 years ago, revealing the significant role of sea food even during the Mesolithic.”


Dental Calculus and Isotopes Provide Direct Evidence of Fish and Plant Consumption in the Mesolithic Mediterranean - Emanuela Cristiani, Anita Radini, Dušan Borić, Harry K. Robson, Isabella Caricola, Marialetizia Carra, Giuseppina Mutri, Gregorio Oxilia, Andrea Zupancich, Mario Šlaus & Dario Vujević - Scientific Reports volume 8, Article number: 8147 (2018) DOI: 10.1038 / s41598-018-26045-9

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