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Ancient Oral Microbiome Analysis Examines Shift to a Cariogenic Diet

An analysis of the oral microbiome of human remains from prehistoric populations living in Italy lends further evidence of the evolutionary shift from a hunter/gatherer existence to an agricultural lifestyle and cariogenic diet. As reported in “Ancient Oral Microbiomes Support Gradual Neolithic Dietary Shifts Towards Agriculture,” appearing in Nature Communications, the authors used DNA from calculus in teeth to track dietary changes over a period of 30,000 years.

The team examined the oral microbiomes of 76 individuals who lived in the same area of prehistoric Italy, spanning the upper-Paleolithic (31,000 to 11,000 BC), Neolithic (6200 to 4000 BC), and Copper ages (3500 to 2200 BC). They combined these findings with archaeological data, including processed animal remains and food residue from grindstones. The resulting analysis allowed researchers to identify dietary shifts ranging from a hunter/gatherer lifestyle to the introduction of fermentation and milk — and eventually a reliance on carbohydrates associated with an agriculture-based diet.

The authors noted a “stronger deviation from the hunter-gatherer microbiome composition in the last part of the Neolithic,” which suggests this period may have marked a more rapid transition from hunting food to growing it. And as farming became mainstream, carbohydrate-based cariogenic food sources played a larger role in the diet, thus likely having a corresponding impact on oral health, and dental caries, in particular.

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