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June 3, 2021


Anthropologists analyzed the fossilized dental plaque of a one-hundred-thousand-year-old Neanderthal to explore the evolution of the oral microbiome.

Credit: National Science Foundation


Hi, I'm Mo Barrow with the NSF -- the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Imagine, you're seconds away from enjoying a warm piece of freshly baked bread, but before it can cross your lips, your friend asks, are you really going to eat those carbs? (Sound effect: sigh)

It turns out, our love affair with carbs goes way back.

A new study funded in part by NSF and led by a Harvard University anthropologist explored the evolution of the oral microbiome -- the community of microorganisms in the mouth that protects against disease and promotes health. The team found that early humans weren't just meat eaters. They were eating carbs at least a hundred thousand years ago, and it wasn't such a bad thing.

Researchers analyzed and reconstructed fossilized dental plaque of non-human primates, Neanderthals and humans, including what is believed to be the oldest microbiome ever tracked -- that of a one-hundred-thousand-year-old Neanderthal!

The study revealed the presence of particular strains of oral bacteria that have the ability to break down starch and are only active when starch is part of a regular diet.

Many foods such as roots, starchy vegetables, and seeds are poorly preserved in the fossil record. So, understanding the role food played in the evolution of human capabilities is tough.

It turns out the glucose in starch is our brain's main fuel source, and diets that include starch may have helped pave the way for the expansion of the human brain.

Remember that the next time you feast on your favorite carbs.

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