Using Teeth to Learn About Diet, Cooking and Food Processing in Prehistoric Sudan

Written by: Katy Meyers Emery

Primary Source: Bones Don’t Lie

How could someone determine what you eat from only examining the things you leave behind? To add to the challenge, you would be hypothetically deceased and unable to communicate your food preferences and cooking methods. Making it even harder, anything that is degradable such as the food itself, the cardboard containers, and the paper labels wouldn’t be preserved. The researcher would probably end up with a very uneven perspective on what you ate since all that would be left is potentially animal bone, maybe some cans or tins of processed food, and plastic containers. For myself, my primarily healthy diet based on mainly fruit and vegetables would be reduced to the bag of chips I indulge in, cans of tuna-fish, and maybe the bag of dried out beans that I’ve never actually touched but purchased because at the time it seemed like a healthy option. This is the challenge we deal with when looking at ancient populations. We have some pollen material, some bone, and if we are lucky some food remains may get scorched to the side of pottery during cooking.

In the recent past, teeth have been increasingly used to understand the diets of past peoples either by examining the teeth themselves or the dental plaque. Dawson and Brown (2013) argue that dental wear varies based on the types of food one is eating. Eating coarse foods will cause teeth to wear down faster, whereas softer foods will cause less damage and the structure of teeth will be better preserved. They used this argument to determine status in a Late Medieval skeletal population from England. Another example is using dental is from a study by Scott and Poulson (2012) who found that stable isotope analysis of dental calculus could reveal insight into dietary habits of a medieval population from Spain. By assessing the carbon ratios, plants that were ingested can be narrowed down to aid in interpreting farming and dietary options.

Dental calculus buildup on teeth, example from medieval Denmark, via Archaeology News Network

Dental calculus buildup on teeth, example from medieval Denmark, via Archaeology News Network

A new study by Buckley et al. 2014, uses dental plaque for more than just assessing diet- they use it to better understand cooking and food preparation methods as well. The site under analysis is Al Khiday 2 located in Sudan, which is a burial ground of pre-Mesolithic, Neolithic and Late Meroitic age. Dentition of the individuals from this site have a range of dental health problems including caries, periapical lesions, ante-mortem tooth loss, enamel hypoplasia and deposits of dental calculus. Samples of dental calculus were taken from 19 individuals, and if possible were divided into two separate parts to allow two different methods of analysis. 14 samples were analysed using thermal desorption-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. Basically, these methods allow for identification of organic compounds within the dental calculus. The remaining 16 samples were examined using light microscopy in order to identify organic and inorganic micro-debris.

Based on this analysis, they were able to learn more about the diet, cooking and processing techniques of the prehistoric Sudanese. Evidence for smoking food was identified in all of the samples by finding components of charcoal and soot in the dental calculus. However, there was variation within individuals of how much protein was found in the dental plaque, meaning that people had differential access to meat within the community. Differences in the size of starch molecules was also noticed in the different time periods. This means that in different periods, they were processing the food in different ways- some involved breaking up the food sources with ones teeth and some were directly eaten without processing. Further, they found evidence of the plant Cyperus rotundus,  which today is considered a weed, in the calculus of these people. In this community, it was used as a resource, potentially a medicine or food.

What is so fascinating about this study, is that they were mainly able to learn more about the cooking, processing and eating of plant resources. They also found evidence of Cyperus rotundus which prevents tooth decay and may have been used as a medicine of sorts. Usually we are able to learn most about the meat eaten by prehistoric communities because animal bones preserve well. However, it is thought that plants were a majority of the diet. This study helps us focus more on plants than meat in the past.

Works Cited

Buckley, S., Usai, D., Jakob, T., Radini, A., & Hardy, K. (2014). Dental Calculus Reveals Unique Insights into Food Items, Cooking and Plant Processing in Prehistoric Central Sudan PLoS ONE, 9 (7) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0100808

Dawson, H., & Brown, K. (2013). Exploring the relationship between dental wear and status in late medieval subadults from England American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 150 (3), 433-441 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.22221

G. Richard Scott, Simon R. Poulson. Stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes of human dental calculus: a potentially new non-destructive proxy for paleodietary analysisJournal of Archaeological Science, 2012; 39 (5): 1388 DOI:10.1016/j.jas.2011.09.029

The following two tabs change content below.
Katy Meyers Emery
Katy is currently a graduate student studying mortuary archaeology at Michigan State University. Her academic interests are in mortuary and bioarchaeology, with a specific interest in connecting the physical remains to the mortuary context. Along with this, she is also interested in Digital Humanities, and the integration of technology into academia, as well as public archaeology and outreach.
Katy Meyers Emery

Latest posts by Katy Meyers Emery (see all)