Prehuman Hygiene Reveals More Than We'd Like

Who knew that when something gets stuck in your teeth it could stay there for a million years?

My sister came over for a little early morning confession. “Last night,” she said, “I went around everywhere with a little piece of black bean stuck in #7. All night. No one said a thing. I needed you.”

Shucks. “You know what a friend does?” she continued. “A friend tells you when there’s a little something stuck in your teeth.” I nodded. “A really good friend picks it out for you.” I wasn’t going to argue with that. “And my husband? He picks it out and feeds it to the dogs.”

I draw the line there. But putting aside whatever differences we might have over how to dispose of tooth gunk, we fully agreed on the unspoken commitment of pointing it out. Imagine Regis smiling with just a hint of spinach omelet. Not okay. Only Alfred E. Newman could pull it off, and that’s not a look anyone I know is hoping to emulate.

Warning: what you are about to learn might be upsetting. That’s the type of heads-up I needed the other day as I sat on my front porch, reading the newspaper and minding my own business. 

Sifting through the headlines with my usual curatorial skill, I made mental notes on what to delve into and what to skip. “Luxury Doghouses Spare No Expense” and “Tales of the New Yorker Told From the 18th Floor” got the earmark as my “must reads.” “Europe’s Mightiest Banks Still Grapple With Crisis” did no more to tempt me than “China Rift in Romney Camp.” If I want to keep my horizons narrow, I’ve got to edit what I read.

And then I saw it. “Prehumans Feasted on Bark.” Normally, I’m a little hesitant to read about science. I tend to view it as a distributive requirement, and I’d already fulfilled mine for the week with my perusal of the reports that drinking a boatload of coffee will extend your life… my own paraphrase, of course, but that was the gist of it I’m pretty sure.

But like all twenty-first century gals, I’m game for an article about food. I just wasn’t prepared for what was printed. You may want to sit down for this. “Almost two million years after their last meals, two members of a prehuman species in southern Africa left traces in their teeth of what they had eaten.”

That’s right. According to this article, a prehuman dynamic duo got busted for having stuff stuck in their teeth. After grazing on wild grasses and a smattering of tree, they kept walking around (or climbing around) with just a little bit of something stuck in those annoying and hard to reach spaces at the top of the teeth, near the gum line. Neither one of them had the courtesy to mention that tiny piece of bark stuck between #2 and #3. And two million years later, people aren’t just noticing, they’re talking about it.

But that’s only part of what concerns me. Dental hygiene aside, it turns out that scientists are able to take a sample of tooth tartar – excuse me, two million year old tooth tartar – and determine what everyone’s been eating.

You read that right. Make all the claims you want about not having finished the Oreo’s in the pantry.  Insist you have no idea why there were so few French fries in the McDonald’s carryout order you brought home for your kids.  Be bold and lie outright that you had nothing to do with the empty bag of sour cream and onion potato chips. It doesn’t matter. A million or so years from now, some dental-hygienist-cum-scientist will bust you.

It gets worse.

According to Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, the skeletons with the offending tartar of bark build-up were a mother and son. Talk about modeling bad behavior. If Mom isn’t brushing after she forages, no way is junior going to. 

Of course, such poor oral hygiene has scientist Amanda Henry of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, a little bit psyched. She and her team knocked themselves out examining the very stuff Colgate and Crest and our dentists tell us to brush away.

They analyzed “the carbon isotopes extracted by laser from tooth enamel…[a body part] that preserves chemical signatures of what was eaten in one’s youth.” Chicken nuggets with a Kool-Aid chaser anyone?

They examined the “dental microwear, which can reveal pits, scratches, and cracks left by hard foods consumed shortly before death.” No worries there. Have you seen what they serve in Assisted Living cafeterias? Those canned peaches aren’t cracking or scratching anything.

But they’re also studying phytoliths, which are “microscopic plant particles… recovered from dental tartar.” Or, in lay terms, archaic food gunk.

I had to put the paper down to consider all of this. Working with a rudimentary comprehension of all things pertaining to science, I was left with a solitary thought: damn. Can’t a gal snack a little without consequences lasting a million or so years?

Then I got philosophical and thought maybe I should act a little more selflessly. I should consider the interests of future scientists and accommodate their quest to understand more about how twenty-first century humans subsisted on Diet Coke,steak and Dove Bites. Let them study my phytoliths, right? What do I care?

Nope. I’m not that selfless. I want to be a woman of mystery. And with that in mind, I will continue to deny having eaten whatever is in the pantry, regardless of the evidence lodged at the top of a canine, bicuspid or molar.  I will floss with a vengeance, trying to erase whatever wisdom may be discoverable in my teeth. 

Tina Helsell June 30, 2012 at 07:17 PM
Hahahahaha! That's a big guffaw. I have started to freely admit eating the food (mostly cookies and candy) that my family members hide from me. This makes them craftier and more strategic when they put the groceries away. This works well for everyone. All joking aside (I know you don't think I am funny, Dr. Whiskey and I am cool with that), the science is pretty fascinating.
william brown July 01, 2012 at 01:46 AM
Now you have the Creationists angry. Wow and in Africa !!!!!
Wendy Shorr July 01, 2012 at 05:25 AM
This information may help me motivate my patients to floss!!


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