Max Planck Research Group on Plant Foods in Hominin Dietary Ecology

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2014

8 October 2014

Invited talks in October: Institute of Medicine (October 20th) and Collège de France (October 28th)

The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences annual meeting for 2014 revolves around the theme "The World Within: The Human Microbiome in Health and Disease". Amanda will be part of a discussion section on the impact of modern lifestyles on the human microbiota, and will be discussing the group's ongoing research with the Hadza foragers of Tanzania. The all-day event on October 20th is open to the public, and the agenda is available here. Videos of all the conference talks will be available on the IOM's website after the event.

As part of the course taught by Prof. Dr. Jean-Jacques Hublin at the Collège de France, Amanda will be giving a talk on “The Vegetal Diet of Pleistocene Hominins” on October 28th. The entirety of the course is open to the public, and is posted online here. Videos of Amanda's and others' talks will be made available online on the same site.

 

8 October 2014

Amanda quoted in a National Geographic article on the Evolution of Diet

The evolution of diet is a hot question, and science writer Ann Gibbons recently spent a lot of time with various peoples around the world, looking at their diets, and talking with researchers about what we are actually evolved to eat. The resulting article in National Geographic is a great picture of just how complex this question is, and how varied the answer can be.

 

Scanning electron microscopy identifies starch in situ in calculus 5 May 2014

Dental calculus is increasingly used as a source of information about past diets. Plant microremains trapped in calculus have the potential to revise our knowledge of diet in past populations. Despite this growing interest in dental calculus, there are still many unresolved questions about the mechanisms by which plant microremains are preserved within the calculus. For instance, the means by which starch grains become embedded and subsequently are preserved in calculus is still unclear due to the difficulties with starch preservation in the oral cavity. There is also the possibility that the starches that have been recovered from calculus are actually the result of modern contamination. Modern starches can occur in the air and working surfaces of some facilities, making environmental contamination a risk.

A cluster of starches trapped in dental calculus

A cluster of starches trapped
in dental calculus.

A new study led by Robert Power and Amanda Henry published online ahead of print in the Journal of Archaeological Science reveals that SEM coupled with energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDX) documents for the first time starch in situ in calculus. The results demonstrate that SEM-EDX can be an effective means for identifying starch and other microremains in intact human and chimpanzee dental calculus. This approach provides the ability to detect microremains, including starch grains, by their morphology and elemental composition in their original context in the calculus, thus ruling out contamination. It also allows exploration of the kinds of environments within the calculus that may permit starch preservation.

Importantly SEM-EDX may offer a non-destructive technique for studying microremains in certain contexts. By comparing traditional optical analytical techniques (OM) with less invasive electron microscopy it is clear that SEM-EDX and OM are both effective for observing microremains in calculus, but differ in their analytical resolution to identify different microremains, and therefore are best used combined in a sequential way.

Power RC, Salazar-García DC, Wittig RM, Henry AG (2014). Assessing use and suitability of scanning electron microscopy in the analysis of microremains in dental calculus. Journal of Archaeological Science, doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2014.04.016.

 

Gut microbiome of the Hadza hunter-gatherers

15 April 2014

The gut microbiota is responsible for many aspects of human health and nutrition, but most studies have focused on “western” populations. An international collaboration of researchers, including researchers of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has for the first time analysed the gut microbiota of a modern hunter-gatherer community, the Hadza of Tanzania. The results of this work show that Hadza harbour a unique microbial profile with features yet unseen in any other human group, supporting the notion that Hadza gut bacteria play an essential role in adaptation to a foraging subsistence pattern. The study further shows how gut microbiota may have helped our ancestors adapt and survive during the Paleolithic. Bacterial populations have co-evolved with humans over millions of years, and have the potential to help us adapt to new environments and foods.

women-dig© Stephanie Schnorr

Hadza women dig for tubers on the rocky slopes of the ridge surrounding Lake Eyasi in Northern Tanzania.

 

Studies of the Hadza offer an especially rare opportunity for scientists to learn how humans survive by hunting and gathering, in the same environment and using similar foods as our ancestors did.

The research team, composed of anthropologists, microbial ecologists, molecular biologists, and analytical chemists, and led in part by Stephanie Schnorr and Amanda Henry of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, compared the Hadza gut microbiota to that of urban living Italians, representative of a “westernized” population. Their results, published recently in Nature Communications, show that the Hadza have a more diverse gut microbe ecosystem, i.e. more bacterial species compared to the Italians. “This is extremely relevant for human health”, says Stephanie Schnorr. “Several diseases emerging in industrialized countries, like IBS, colorectal cancer, obesity, type II diabetes, Crohn’s disease and others, are significantly associated with a reduction in gut microbial diversity.”

The Hadza gut microbiota is well suited for processing indigestible fibres from a plant-rich diet and likely helps the Hadza get more energy from the fibrous foods that they consume. Surprisingly, Hadza men and women differed significantly in the type and amount of their gut microbiota, something never before seen in any other human population. Hadza men hunt game and collect honey, while Hadza women collect tubers and other plant foods. Though they share these foods, each sex eats slightly more of the foods they target. “The differences in gut microbiota between the sexes reflects this sexual division of labour”, says Schnorr. “It appears that women have more bacteria to help process fibrous plant foods, which has direct implications for their fertility and reproductive success.” These findings support the key role of the gut microbiota as adaptive partners during the course of human evolution by aligning with differing diets.

Finally, the Hadza gut microbe community is a unique configuration with high levels of bacteria, like Treponema, that in western populations are often considered signs of disease, and low levels of other bacteria, like Bifidobacterium, that in western populations are considered “healthy”. However, the Hadza experience little to no autoimmune diseases that would result from gut bacteria imbalances. Therefore, we must redefine our notions of “healthy” and “unhealthy” bacteria, since these distinctions are clearly dependent on the environment we live in. Genetic diversity of bacteria is likely the most important criterion for the health and stability of the gut microbiome.
“Co-resident microbes are our ‘old friends’ that help us adapt to different lifestyles and environments”, says Amanda Henry, leader of the Max Planck Research Group on Plant Foods in Hominin Dietary Ecology. “Through this analysis of the Hadza gut microbiota, we have increased our knowledge of human-microbiome adaptations to life in a savanna environment and improved our understanding of how gut microbiota may have helped our ancestors adapt and survive during the Paleolithic.”

 

Bringing home the . . . barley? Neanderthals ate plants, too.

6 March 2014

Neanderthals have often been portrayed as the ultimate hunters, but new research led by Dr. Amanda Henry shows they were also plant connoisseurs who ate a variety of starchy foods like grass seeds and tubers.

Though Neanderthals certainly ate large game like reindeer, horses and mammoths, some have thought that they also avoided foods like plants and small animals. In contrast, early modern humans ate a wide variety of foods, including large and small game, fish and plants. Some researchers have argued that Neanderthals' narrow diet made them more vulnerable to starvation and eventually extinction once early modern humans arrived in Europe.

The new study, published in the Journal of Human Evolution, shows that Neanderthals did eat plants, and in fact they ate as many different kinds of plants as early modern humans did. Henry and colleagues studied tiny plant particles that were preserved in dental plaque and on stone tools. These particles can be identified, and therefore provide a record of the plant foods that individuals and populations ate. After examining this record on ancient samples from across Europe, the Near East and Africa, the scientists discovered that both Neanderthals and early modern humans ate many different types of plants. Both groups ate grass seeds, like the wild relatives of wheat and barley, and tubers, like the fleshy root of the waterlily. This research suggests there were fewer dietary differences between Neanderthals and early modern humans than previously thought, and that starchy plant foods, including grass seeds, have been a part of human diet since well before the origin of agriculture.

The paper is available online at:
http://authors.elsevier.com/sd/article/S0047248414000189

 

Scientists unlock a ‘microbial Pompeii’

6 March 2014

PWG post-doc Domingo Carlos Salazar-Garcia is part of an international team that has discovered a ‘microbial Pompeii’ preserved on the teeth of skeletons around 1,000 years old. The key to the discovery is the dental calculus (plaque), which preserves bacteria and microscopic particles of food on the surfaces of teeth, effectively creating a mineral tomb for microbiomes.

The research team discovered that the ancient human oral cavity carries numerous opportunistic pathogens and that periodontal disease is caused by the same bacteria today as in the past, despite major changes in human diet and hygiene. They also discovered that the ancient human oral microbiome already contained the basic genetic machinery for antibiotic resistance more than eight centuries before the invention of the first therapeutic antibiotics in the 1940s.

A cluster of starches trapped in dental calculus© Christina Warinner

Ancient dental calculus magnified 1,000 times reveals the presence of millions of Gram positive (blue) and Gram negative (red) oral bacteria fossilized in situ.

As well as health information, the scientists recovered dietary DNA from ancient dental calculus, allowing the identification of dietary components, such as vegetables, that leave few traces in the archaeological record.

This pioneering analysis of ancient oral microbiome ecology and function, published recently in Nature Genetics (http://www.nature.com/ng/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/ng.2906.html), was led by Dr. Christina Warinner at the University of Oklahoma, and involved the contributions of 32 scientists at twelve institutions in seven countries.

 

Plants in Natufian diet and culture

3 January 2014

The Natufian culture is recognized as pivotal in the rise of complex human subsistence in the Near East. Unravelling how Natufians used plants is essential for understanding these late Mediterranean hunter-gatherers. While most researchers believe the Natufians collected the grains of grasses, little direct evidence has been recovered. Analysis of phytoliths at Raqefet Cave (Mt. Carmel, Israel) has now revealed evidence of Late Natufian staple foods. The results indicate subsistence-related use of grass seeds, including both small-seeded and large-seeded grasses such as wild barleys and wild wheats. They also suggest an opportunistic approach to grass seed collection. Phytolith assemblages from the Cave’s burial contexts shed further light on previously reported floral grave linings. Evidence suggests that a multi-species layer of vegetation including flowering plants and Phragmites lined the graves, accompanying the dead.

A cluster of starches trapped in dental calculus


© Robert Power

Multi-cell phytolith from the husk of a wild wheat recovered at Raqefet Cave.

 

Power, RC, Rosen, AM, Nadel, D, 2014. The economic and ritual utilization of plants at the Raqefet Cave Natufian site: The evidence from phytoliths. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 33, 49-65.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jaa.2013.11.002

 

2013

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Neanderthal diets in Iberia

29 September 2013

The diets of Neanderthals remain highly debated, and several different analytical methods have been used to study their food related behaviors. However, results from these different methods rarely overlap, since different regions and subjects are studied. Furthermore, most of the ecological dietary studies have been carried out on specimens drawn from different time periods and regions, almost exclusively those characterized by cold, open environmental conditions. Subsistence models based on these fragmentary data have been applied to Neanderthals living in a variety of different regions and environments, even though their dietary strategies may have been as variable as regions they inhabited. In this paper we integrate different dietary approaches (studies of the zooarchaeology, stable isotopes and plant remains) from the central and southeastern Mediterranean coast of Iberia in order to develop a broader and more complex picture of Neanderthal diet in different Mediterranean environmental conditions. Our results suggest that there may have been some minor dietary variation due to climatic or environmental differences, but that Neanderthal diet focused on large terrestrial game, supplemented by plant foods when these were available .

Salazar-García DC, Power RC, Sanchís AS,Villaverde V, Walker MJ, Henry AG (in press). Integrating new Neanderthal dietary evidence from southeastern coastal Iberia. Quaternary International.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2013.06.007

 

 

Flowers for Natufian Graves

2 July 2013

Plants, in particular flowers, are a familiar feature of human ritual in many cultures. Scientists have for years debated when flowers took on this importance. Unfortunately understanding the early use of flowers is immensely challenging due to the paucity of remains.      
Robert Power of the Plant Foods in Hominin Dietary Ecology Research group has worked as part of a multidisciplinary team in a study published in PNAS led by Dani Nadel at the University of Haifa to understand their use at Raqefet Cave on Mount Carmel in Israel where unusual preservation conditions have allowed the survival of traces of their use.
Multidisciplinary analyses showed uniquely preserved Late Natufian grave linings made with plants notable for their flowers, suggesting that these plants were selected for their flowering ability. This indicates the use of flowers can now be securely dated to at least 13,700-11,700 BP.  This period is already known for the earliest cemeteries in the Levant (ca. 15,000-11,500 years ago) in the northern Israel, where dozens of burials in each reflect a wide range of inhumation practices.
The newly discovered flower linings were found in four Natufian graves at the burial. Large identified plant impressions in the graves include stems of sage and other Lamiaceae (Labiatae; mint family) or Scrophulariaceae (figwort family) species, and accompanied by a plethora of phytoliths they provide the first direct evidence for such preparation and decoration of graves, adding a new perspective to Natufian funerary rites. Its identification indicates grave preparation was a sophisticated planned process, imbued with social meanings. Undoubtedly grave preparation reflected the profound changes that the complex pre-agricultural Natufian society was undergoing at the end of the Pleistocene.

Dani Nadel, Avinoam Danin, Robert C. Power, Arlene M. Rosen, Fanny Bocquentin, Alexander Tsatskin, Danny Rosenberg, Reuven Yeshurun, Lior Weissbrod, Noemi R. Rebollo, Omry Barzilai, and Elisabetta Boaretto. Earliest floral grave lining from 13,700–11,700-y-old Natufian burials at Raqefet Cave, Mt. Carmel, Israel. PNAS 2013: 1302277110v1-201302277.

 

 

Phytoliths, Grit, and the Mechanisms of Dental Wear

8 January 2013

Dental microwear, the pattern of tiny marks on worn tooth surfaces, is an important basis for understanding the diets of fossil mammals, including those of our own lineage. Members of the Plant Foods in Hominin Dietary Ecology Research group have worked as part of an international multidisciplinary team led by Peter Lucas at Kuwait University to unravel the causes of microwear at the nanoscale level. It turns out that quartz dust is the major culprit that wears away tooth enamel. Silica phytoliths, thought to be a major component of wear, just rub enamel, and thus have a very different effect on its surface.

A cluster of starches trapped in dental calculus

© Peter Lucas

Textured surface showing the enamel surface of a tooth that has been deeply grooved by quartz grit.

The results suggest a revision of what microwear can tell us about diets, and suggest that environmental factors like droughts and dust storms may have had a large effect on the longevity of teeth. East African hominins may have suffered during dust storms, particularly from particles carried in by seasonal winds from the Arabian peninsula.

The article is available on the Journal of the Royal Society Interface's website:
http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsif.2012.0923

More information is available on the Max Planck Society's website:
English:
http://www.mpg.de/6777444/crystalline-quartz-teeth
German:
http://www.mpg.de/6774916/Quarz_Zahnverschleiss

 

2012

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The diet of Australopithecus sediba

27 June 2012

Dental microwear, the pattern of tiny marks on worn tooth surfaces, is an important basis for understanding the diets of fossil mammals, including those of our own lineage. Members of the Plant Foods in Hominin Dietary Ecology Research group have worked as part of an international multidisciplinary team led by Peter Lucas at Kuwait University to unravel the causes of microwear at the nanoscale level. It turns out that quartz dust is the major culprit that wears away tooth enamel. Silica phytoliths, thought to be a major component of wear, just rub enamel, and thus have a very different effect on its surface. The results suggest a revision of what microwear can tell us about diets, and suggest that environmental factors like droughts and dust storms may have had a large effect on the longevity of teeth. East African hominins may have suffered during dust storms, particularly from particles carried in by seasonal winds from the Arabian peninsula.

A cluster of starches trapped in dental calculus



© Amanda Henry

A band of dental calculus is clearly visible as a dark line across the teeth from MH1.

 

The article is available on the Journal of the Royal Society Interface's website:
http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsif.2012.0923

More information is available on the Max Planck Society's website:
English:
http://www.mpg.de/6777444/crystalline-quartz-teeth
German:
http://www.mpg.de/6774916/Quarz_Zahnverschleiss

 

 

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