Diet, Environment and Respiratory Irritants in the Lower Palaeolithic
Reconstructing detailed aspects of the lives of Lower Palaeolithic hominins, who lived during the Middle Pleistocene, is challenging due to the restricted nature of the surviving evidence, predominantly animal bones and stone tools. But hominins, just like humans, needed plant foods in order to survive and reproduce. The site of Qesem Cave, Israel, which was inhabited between 420,000-200,000 years ago, has evidence for a wealth of innovative features including the earliest clear evidence worldwide for controlled use of fire. Analysis of remains embedded in samples of dental calculus from the hominins who lived here found evidence for a range of inhaled and ingested materials. These finds offer an insight into the environment in and around the cave, as inhaled pollen grains from pine trees indicate a forested environment, while micro-charcoal suggests smoke inhalation may have been a problem inside the cave. Plant fibres and a phytolith may be evidence of oral hygiene activities or of using the teeth to work raw materials. Starch granules and chemical compounds provide a direct link to ingested plant food items, most specifically, the presence of plants containing the essential linoleic and linolenic polyunsaturated fatty acids. Together, these results represent a significant breakthrough towards a better understanding of Middle Pleistocene dietary breadth and highlight some of the challenges facing the adoption of the habitual use of fire for cooking by the Qesem Cave hominins, as well as offering new information on the paleoenvironment surrounding the cave, and new insights into palaeolithic ecological knowledge and technological adaptability.