Shalom Life | July 20, 2015

Potentially the Earliest Form of Man-made Pollution Discovered in Israel

400,000-year-old teeth indicate early traces of food and pollution

By: Daina Goldfinger

Published: June 18th, 2015 in News » World

Potentially the Earliest Form of Man-made Pollution Discovered in Israel

Photo: 400,000-year-old dental tartar discovered in Israel


Israel is an archaeological hub, with many founded artifacts dating back to thousands of years ago. Former discoveries have included the piecing together of a 3,000-year-old broken jug, the excavation of a 5,000-year-old music scene and a 1,000-year-old Jewish marriage contract.

Now, researchers have potentially discovered the oldest documented case of man-made pollution – fossilized teeth that are 400,000 years old.

Archaeologists from Tel Aviv University have collaborated with scholars from Spain, the United Kingdom and Australia to excavate various artifacts from the Qesam Cave that showcase many findings from the late Lower Paleolithic period.

The artifacts found in the Qesam Cave, including the fossilized teeth, indicate people’s diets at the time, in addition to potential respiratory irritants and the quality of air.

Professor Avi Gopher, a Professor within the Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Civilizations, and a researcher working on the Qesam Cave excavation, explained that human teeth had never been studied before for dental calculus. Because of the aging of the plaque in the teeth, the expectations for tooth preservation were quite low. Despite this, since the cave was sealed for 200,000 years, the teeth were preserved “exceedingly well.”

Researchers discovered the food that was eaten, which was comprised of essential fatty acid, which could have been consumed in the form of nuts, seeds other plant-based sources. “We know that the cave dwellers ate animals, and exploited them entirely,” explained Professor Barkai, one of the lead researchers from Tel Aviv University’s Archaeology department. “Now we have direct evidence of a tiny piece of the plant-based part of their diet also, in addition to the animal meat and fat they consumed.”

The archaeologists that discovered the 400,000-year-old teeth also found possible respiratory irritants in the dental plaque. The traces of charcoal are speculated to have been caused by inhaling smoke from indoor fires.

According to Barkai, the excavation of the teeth is one of the earliest discoveries of inhaled environmental pollution, which may have negatively affected those living during the Paleolithic period.

“This is one of the first, if not the first, cases of manmade pollution on the plant,” said Barkai. “Our findings are rare. There is no other similar discovery from this time period.”

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