Fossils Show Cavemen Ate Butterflies and Used ‘Toothpicks’

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Our ancestors ate butterflies and other insects; even hay fever-causing plants and grass seeds. But while that may sound primitive, they did apparently use their own version of a toothpick.

Hominin dental fossil dating back more than one million years. Credit: Karen Hardy

These clues about the lives of the hominins of more than a million years ago were unearthed by archaeologists in Spain and published in The Science of Nature.

Study lead author Karen Hardy of the Catalan Institute for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA) and the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona excavated a 1.2 million-year-old tooth from the Sima del Elefante excavation site in the Atapuerca Mountains of Spain.

After removing a tiny bit of tartar from the tooth and putting it under a microscope, they were able to analyze the microfossils found within the tooth. The microfossils showed:

  • Several pieces of fiber, including non-edible wood. The wood was found “adjacent to an interproximal groove suggesting oral hygiene activities,” the authors wrote, “while plant fibers may be linked to raw materials processing.”
  • Plant and animal tissue, showing the cavemen had not yet learned to cook food with fire and were consuming it raw. “The timing of controlled use of fire remains unclear though evidence from south Spain suggests that it was in use at least 800,000 years ago,” Hardy and colleagues wrote. “The development of fire for cooking is considered an essential part of hominin evolution, an important development through improved access to preformed glucose and a focus for social behavior.”
  • A scale from a butterfly’s wing and a piece of an insect’s leg.
  • Fungal spores like those found in the modern-day plant Alternaria, which causes asthma and hay fever. “Environmental evidence comprises spores, insect fragments and conifer pollen grains which are consistent with a forested environment,” the authors wrote. While the spores likely were inhaled accidentally, Hardy said in a news release, “It is plausible that these ancient grasses were ingested as food. Grasses produce abundant seeds in a compact head, which may be conveniently chewed, especially before the seeds mature fully, dry out and scatter.”
Starch granules trapped in the tartar found in the dental fossil. Credit: Karen Hardy

These discoveries are significant because previously, the oldest specimen unearthed offering clues about the diets of our ancient ancestors was only 49,000 years old.

“Finding evidence for the use of plants during the Lower Paleolithic (period) is very challenging and the role of plants in these early periods has consequently been largely overlooked,” the authors wrote. “However, humans cannot survive without eating plants. Our evidence for the consumption of at least two different starchy plants, in addition to the direct evidence for consumption of meat and use of plant-based raw materials, suggests that this very early European hominin population had a detailed understanding of its surroundings and a broad diet.”

The findings aren’t surprising though, per the paper. “All modern chimpanzee behavior is considered to be within the capacity of the chimpanzee/human last common ancestor and therefore all hominin species. Chimpanzees demonstrate botanical knowledge, use plant materials to construct composite tools and exploit a wide range of plants as food and as medicine while even the insect species adapt their diet according to their health.”

 

A professional journalist nearly 30 years, David Heitz started his career at the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa before moving to Los Angeles. He led the Glendale News-Press to best small daily newspaper in the state (CNPA) as managing editor and also worked as executive news editor of the Press-Telegram. He worked briefly as deputy news editor of the Detroit News before returning to the Quad-Cities, where he has worked as a freelance medical writer since 2012 for several national websites. He recently purchased his childhood home and says he truly is “living the dream.”