January 9, 2014

Hunter-gatherers, acorns and tooth trouble

It has been commonplace to believe that hunter-gatherers had good tooth health and that it was farming what caused dental problems because as cereals became a staple. There was good reason for that: caries were detected only rarely among hunter-gatherer remains (0-14%) while early farmers had much such painful problems much more frequently.

However the Upper Paleolithic people of Taforalt caves (Rif, North Africa), some 14,000 years ago (Oranian culture), had caries in 51% of adult teeth, a frequency comparable to those of early farmers.

This is attributed to the very high levels of nut consumptions, particularly acorns but also pine nuts, juniper berries, pistachios and wild oats. The number of acorn remains found is so large that the archaeologists had to conclude that they were used as year-long staple.

Late Upper Paleolithic of North Africa
· Iberomaurusian, aka Oranian, is shaded in dark green ·
· The core area of Capsian is shaded in gray-blue ·
(credit: Locutus Borg (anticopyright))

Taforalt people had hand mills, which they used to process some of these nuts, most likely the acorns, whose consumption as bread has been documented since antiquity.

Another finding are esparto grasses, which the authors believe were used in basketry. However I must mention that this versatile fiber has known many uses, being documented in Neolithic clothing of nearby Andalusia, used for some types of shoes even today and, of course, being a prime material for rope-making.

Esparto bale

Oranian culture dates to c. 22,000 years ago, with likely (partial?) roots in the Southern Iberian Gravetto-Solutrean (hence the name Iberomaurusian, although the culture as such is not known in Iberia). It was replaced in the Epipaleolithic by Capsian culture, with ultimate roots at the Nile (and hence the most likely vector of Afroasiatic languages leading to Tamazigh, aka Berber).

Source: PhysOrg.

Ref. Louise T. Humphrey et al., Earliest evidence for caries and exploitation of starchy plant foods in Pleistocene hunter-gatherers from Morocco. PNAS 2013 (pay per view, free after 6 months) → LINK [doi: 10.1073/pnas.1318176111]


  1. Me parece interesante el blog. Me gustaría saber como surgieron las diferencias fenotípicas que hay entre los humanos que son bastante grandes. No entiendo como han podido surgir. Si son mutaciones, ¿no se repiten? , me parece extraño, porque otras mutaciones si se repiten. Tampoco me cuadra la selección o la adaptación al clima, la verdad, no lo entiendo y me encantaría saber más de este tema.

    1. Envíame correo a → lialdamiz [en] gmail [punto] com ←

      Estás offtopic, es un tema muy amplio y el lenguaje de trabajo de este blog es el inglés.

  2. Very timely post.

    (I think the "LINK" for the paper might need a quick tweak.)

    Esparto grass could also be used to build boats:


    As you probably know, there are plenty of these reed boats in pictures in Ancient Egypt.

    And this one appearing Tassili n'ajjer rock art:


    The crescents are believed to be reed boats.

    A quick search shows that acorn eating is documented in antiquity in Spain, Sicily, Epiros and Mantineia. I did an image search on "acorn Sicily" and came up with a huge number of coins dated to the time of classical Greece with a pig and an acorn on them.

    Many of the classical references also state that the acorns and chestnuts were used interchangeably.

    Remember our conversation four years ago?

    January 25th, 2010:


    We discussed chestnuts.

    Taforalt looks very "EEF" to me.

    1. It's possible that esparto and reeds like totora or papyrus can be used to build boats but generally speaking wood is easier to use for such purposes. Only in desertic areas where wood is scarce (Egypt, coastal Peru, etc.) it is common to find reed boats. Sawn planks, dug-out trunks (or a combo of both), leather boats on a wooden or bone frame or a simple but often quite sturdy raft are much more widespread. If they had acorns, they had wood.

      Whatever the case boats have been common since extremely ancient times. Another thing is deep sea navigation, which is a bit more complicated, requiring sails, astronomy and improved ships, as well as a penchant for adventure between life and death.

      "Taforalt looks very "EEF" to me".

      If you mean the Taforalt skull, which is quite older than these findings (although the same techno-culture), he's considered an archetypal Crô-Magnon. CM-1 is very robust, I know, but he's actually less typical for WHGs, being his robustness most likely individual traits and not representative. At the very least Iberian "cromagnons" are more like Taforalt than CM-1, but also all the skulls I know from Moravian or FCR (or even Epipaleolithic Scandinavian) contexts (various periods) are also lighter framed than CM-1.

      I'm looking at the (incomplete) Stuttgart skull (Extended Data Figure 1 of the Lazaridis paper) and I don't see any clear traits that may identify him as different from the others, I wonder what are you "seeing" as definitory traits. Although I also wonder if I want to have this discussion, really, because my impression is that you are in essence wishful-thinking with total disregard for the archaeological frame.

  3. No, I wasn't referring to the Taforalt skull, just the acorns.

    1. I don't think that acorn consumption is recorded for European Neolithic populations. Instead the usual "Neolithic package" (with lesser variations at most) is apparent in all them: cereals, lentils, peas, flax, sheep/goats, cows, pigs... In some cases also olives (Andalusia), opium, horses (early Chalcolithic Iberia), etc.

      However it is true that acorn consumption is documented historically in several places, although it seems to be mostly an emergency/poverty type of food resource.

  4. You wrote: "It was replaced in the Epipaleolithic by Capsian culture, with ultimate roots at the Nile (and hence the most likely vector of Afroasiatic languages leading to Tamazigh, aka Berber)."
    Q1 is: which dating is the Epipaleolithic?
    Q2 is: how do we know that Capsian is linked with the Nile area?

    1. Epipaleolithic is a loose term that means late Paleolithic after the Ice Age was over. It's sometimes replaced by "Mesolithic" but purists will say that Mesolithic is best used in a restrictive sense for those cultures performing a transition between Paleolithic (HG) and Neolithic (farming) economies, such as Natufian/PPNA, while "Epipaleolithic" should be used instead for cultures not experiencing this economical transition, like the ones of Europe. I adhere to this format.

      Capsian begins c. 10 Ka BP, so it should be considered Epipaleolithic (excepted its late "Capsian Neolithic" incarnation, of course). Sometimes you read "Late Upper Paleolithic" but I think it's inaccurate because in Europe such terminology is reserved for the period between the LGM and the end of the Ice Age, particularly Magdalenian, what in North Africa would correspond to Oranian.

      "... how do we know that Capsian is linked with the Nile area?"

      This is something I know from previous reads and discussions many years ago. There are quite clear precursors of Capsian in the area of Nubia (Southern Egypt) and there is also a Capsian-like culture in Kenya (Eburran culture), probably from the same origin.

      The matter is a bit confused because it's also very possible that Oranian influenced the Nile at some point, prior to Capsian development, and also because anticolonialist ideology has gone occasionally overboard in claiming always "local" origins and rejecting European or even Asian influence in Africa, even against overwhelming evidence. For example you can still find studies claiming an East African origin for Oranian, when it is well known that Moroccan sites are the oldest ones of this culture and that its Iberian affinities are very clear (even in the genetic aspect).

      This (→ http://watarts.uwaterloo.ca/~dlubell/Advances.pdf) is for example a 1984 paper which argues for both Oranian influence in the Nile and Nile origins for Capsian, something I can agree with for all I know (including the phylogeny of mtDNA U6, which seems to originate in Morocco and "bounce" at the U6a level in the Nile).

      The same author in 1990 however argued for local continuity: http://watarts.uwaterloo.ca/~dlubell/Sahara_Sheppard%20&%20Lubell.pdf

      Only to say nothing at all about possible origins on 2001: http://www.ualberta.ca/~dlubell/Ency_Maghreb.pdf

      I personally lean to immigration from the Nile on various reasons, but allowing for possible earlier impact in that area from NW Africa (Oranian). Besides the quite apparent similitudes with several Nubian and Kenyan sites of Capsian, there are genetic issues such as the phylogenetic geography of mtDNA U6 and that of yDNA E1b(xE1b-M81) and J1. If there was no Capsian "invasion", we should expect European-like yDNA such as haplogroup I (found at important frequencies among ancient Guanches but almost non-existent in modern NW Africa) just like we find lots of European-derived mtDNA (at the very least H1, H3, H4 and H7, probably also V). Capsian is also a good explanation for the expansion of J1 and E1b(xM81), however E-M81 may be much older in NW Africa and concentrates to the West (Morocco), while the "Capsian" lineages concentrate to the East (Tunisia).

      I can look for more materials but I'm in a hurry now.

  5. So the bad tooth health was not exactly due to the large consumption of nuts. But of nut breads and flours?

  6. So, the bad tooth health was not due to the large consumption of nuts but because of the processing of nuts into breads and flours?

    1. The article seems to imply it is the starch contained in them what caused the tooth trouble, just like with farmers later on, so it would not be so much the processing in principle but the fact that they relied heavily on such foods. But I don't know for sure if preliminary grinding and processing may somehow be related or not.

      What really matters, IMO, about the hand mills is that they are similar to Mesolithic developments later on further East (NE Africa, West Asia), which eventually led to cereal farming. This is interesting on its own, although there are much older examples of similar "culinary" behavior in other parts of the World, like Mozambique 100 Ka ago: http://leherensuge.blogspot.com/2009/12/people-ate-processed-sorghum-100000.html


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