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Monday, 4 June 2012

Brought to You by Science!: Secrets of Prehistoric Icky Tooth Goo

Hello, everyone!

Now on SciFiMagpie: "Brought to You by Science!" This new segment is a short reflection on recent stuff on science news, and what it means for writers and the rest of you.

I have just found a reason to feel less guilty about the occasional night of skipping a tooth-brushing in my youth. Inside Science reported that calculus on ancient Neanderthal teeth--that's plaque, to the rest of us--had actually proven to include tiny fossilised bits of bacteria, pollen, and cooked food matter. This is a pretty big deal, because it means that the method of cooking food, type of food eaten, and where the food came from can all be examined. And, since prehistoric dental care was about as good as that of modern uninsured Americans, there is no shortage of physical evidence.

I don't really know how they discovered this, but since they "can examine the calculus directly on the tooth with a microscope", and used modern dental tools to scrape off bits of the rest, I suppose someone noticed a wee bit of ancient bacteria whilst popping a tooth under the most highly-powered microscope in the lab. Because, you know, it was Thursday, and scientists always like to pop a random sample under a microscope on Thursdays, just to see how it's doing. All right, there was more of a method to it than that. Still, the discovery--if the 'excited squealing' tone of the paper and the casual article are anything to go by--appears to have been a bit of serendipity, and it got me thinking.


On one hand, this is a good thing, if only because it disproves the fairly stupid concept of the Caveman Diet (a high-meat, high-fat, low-grain, moderate veggie and fruit). It also gives us some insight into what kinds of things historical re-creationists should be cooking. And, should one be writing a story with a prehistoric--or partially prehistoric--setting, there will actually be more reliable sources of information on the sorts of food your characters will be cooking and eating.

On the other side, it does mean we'll have to do more research, of course, and I think I speak for more than a few writers when I say that doing the research to ensure something is historically accurate can be really frelling frustrating. I say "can be", but what I really mean is, "inevitably will always be, even without a direct drip-feed of Wikipedia articles into one's frontal lobe."

Anyway, getting on with it, coming across this research and its conclusions was both expected and surprising. Years of interest in palaeontology and a friend with interests in early homonids have combined to provide me with a basic understanding about Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens. (Including the fact that they may have interbred with us, and there was, at minimum, cultural contact. Think about it next time you watch football.)I was well aware of the fact that Neanderthals had pretty respectably well-developed brains and had a more sophisticated culture than previously expected--including death rituals, well-made hunting equipment, and that sort of thing. Still, imagining a Neanderthal family sitting down for a cooked meal of greens, starches, and grains as opposed to grunting and tearing into a hunk of raw mammoth is a different proposition. I've come across a few Clan of the Cave Bear-type books in my time, though never many, because it's a difficult topic to tackle. Now that there is more evidence than ever about the sort of life our distant cousins led, I hope to see more people attempting to write these stories. I don't know that I'd ever scribe one myself, but it would be a very neat scene inclusion in something that involved a twisted timeline, a cosmic flashback, or suchlike.

And, since the calculus also contained microscopic disease bacteria, we can also figure out whether the modern cold sucked more than the ancient forms of the virus. Add that to your pile of things to check for historical accuracy! Or don't, if the pile is too big, as that will give you a heart attack. On the bright side, future archaeologists who discover your corpse will be able to use the bacteria on your teeth to determine that poor cardiovascular health (as worsened by bacteria) was the result of your demise!

That's all the time we have for today, but be sure to check out my Twitter feed, SciFiMagpie, and to come back for more stuff about science, games, writing, and goofing about. This is your SciFiMagpie, over and out!

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