Paleo-etiquette |

Israeli Researchers Reveal Cavemen’s Table Manners

Study of prehistoric teeth found in cave in Israel reveals how our ancestors ate 400,000 years ago, if not who exactly they were.

Ariel David
Ariel David
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Prehistoric teeth, aged 200,000 to 400,000 years, found in Qesem cave. What species of man they belonged to, we do not know.
Prehistoric teeth, aged 200,000 to 400,000 years, found in Qesem cave. What species of man they belonged to, we do not know.Credit: Rachal Sarig
Ariel David
Ariel David

Prehistoric humans may not have been the most elegant dining companions, but they too evidently had something akin to table manners.

Scientists painstakingly analyzing prehistoric human teeth found in Qesem cave, in central Israel, say the signs of wear and tear reveal a lot about the diet and behavior of our ancestors, down to the very gestures they used when they gathered around the fire to share food. So, in the unlikely event that you should find yourself stuck in the distant past sharing a meal with our ancestors, here’s how you blend in:

Grab some aurochs steak – or whatever is on the menu – with one hand. Grip it between your teeth and, with your other hand, use a small flint blade to slice off a manageable bite size.

But watch out because those flint tools are sharp and if you’re not careful, you could chip or graze your own choppers.

It is exactly by looking at the marks left on teeth by this early form of stone cutlery that researchers have been able to reconstruct this pattern of behavior, says Rachel Sarig, a dental anthropologist at Tel Aviv University who led the study to be published Wednesday in the scientific journal Quaternary International.

The heavy circled line is a crack in the enamel; the many small scratches around it are believed to be marks accidentally left on the teeth by flint blades used to cut food while eating.Credit: Rachel Sarig

Using an electron microscope, Sarig analyzed 13 teeth dug up by archaeologists at Qesem, a cave some 20 kilometers east of Tel Aviv discovered in the year 2000 during road works.

The site has since yielded a treasure trove of flint tools and animal bones, as well as some key finds to the study of prehistoric humans, including the discovery of the oldest known use of controlled fire.

Hominids inhabited the cave from around 400,000 to 200,000 years ago and the teeth analyzed in the study span almost this entire period. All but two of the 13 teeth belonged to different individuals, all of whom are believed to have been children or young adults.

The similar shape, orientation and large number of scratches found on the external surface of the teeth rules out the possibility that the marks were somehow made after death by animals or natural phenomena, Sarig says.

“This indicates that they used some kind of flint tool to cut the food,” she told Haaretz in a telephone interview. “They would hold the food in their mouth, pull at it with one hand and cut it with the tool in the other hand.”

Archaeologists working in Qesem cave, where the finds include 13 hominid teeth going back as much as 400,000 years, which are indicative of how the hominins ate.Credit: Ariel David

Archaeologists at Qesem have in fact found a hoard of small flint tools, often recycled from larger utensils used for cutting and butchering, which they believe may have been used as a form of primitive cutlery.

Cutting off the crust

Another finding was that the teeth showed extensive wear, despite belonging to youngsters, suggesting that theirs was a very “abrasive diet," Sarig said. "The consistency of the food was hard; it required a lot of chewing.”

A previous study, published last summer, analyzed the calculus buildup on the Qesem teeth and identified minute particles of starch and fibers, indicating the local hominids’ diet was not based solely on meat and may have included roots and vegetables.

Sarig’s latest work shows that the Qesem people would have had much stronger masticatory systems, with massively developed jaws compared to modern human populations, she said.

Flint tools found in Qesem cave, a prehistoric site some 20km from Tel Aviv, where remains of hominins going back nearly half a million years have been found.Credit: Ariel David

That may help explain why today some 70 percent of the world’s population requires orthodontics and many have problems with crowding, impacted teeth, lacking enough space for their wisdom teeth to emerge, Sarig, who is also an orthodontist, pointed out.

“Today we even cut off the crust of the bread for our children,” she said. “Once you don’t use your teeth to process the food so much, the muscles, bones and the whole masticatory system become less massive, but the size of our teeth, which is more dependent on genetics, has remained more or less the same, leading to these problems.”

Who is Qesem man?

One question that the teeth do not answer is what kind of hominid lived at Qesem. The lack of other important human remains that could identify the species has left archaeologists scratching their heads.

Experts do not believe the teeth match those of Homo erectus, which is believed to be the first hominid to leave Africa and populate Eurasia, starting around 1.7 million years ago, said Avi Gopher, one of the Tel Aviv University archaeologists who leads the dig. “The discussion is whether it’s Modern human or Neanderthal,” Gopher said. “It could be a common ancestor of both.”

Until more human remains are unearthed it will be impossible to know for sure, but the tools and techniques used there suggest the people of Qesem were quite close to us on the evolutionary ladder.

“It’s a different kind of human than what was here before,” Gopher said, referencing Homo erectus. “The technology, the use of fire, they all point to a new type of hominid.”



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