Science & Tech

Turns out developing a taste for carbs wasn’t a bad thing

Gorilla skulls.

Grauer’s gorilla specimens at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium, showing typical dental calculus deposits on the teeth that are stained dark likely as a result of their herbivorous diet.

Photo by Katerina Guschanski

6 min read

Findings on Neanderthal oral microbiomes offer new clues on evolution, health

A new study looking at the evolutionary history of the human oral microbiome shows that Neanderthals and ancient humans adapted to eating starch-rich foods as far back as 100,000 years ago, which is much earlier than previously thought.

The findings suggest such foods became important in the human diet well before the introduction of farming and even before the evolution of modern humans. And while these early humans probably didn’t realize it, the benefits of bringing the foods into their diet likely helped pave the way for the expansion of the human brain because of the glucose in starch, which is the brain’s main fuel source.

“We think we’re seeing evidence of a really ancient behavior that might have been part of encephalization — or the growth of the human brain,” said Harvard Professor Christina Warinner, Ph.D. ’10. “It’s evidence of a new food source that early humans were able to tap into in the form of roots, starchy vegetables, and seeds.”

The findings come from a seven-year study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that involved the collaboration of more than 50 international scientists. Researchers reconstructed the oral microbiomes of Neanderthals, primates, and humans, including what’s believed to be the oldest oral microbiome ever sequenced — a 100,000-year-old Neanderthal.

The goal was to better understand how the oral microbiome — a community of microorganisms in the mouth that helps protect against disease and promote health — developed, since little is known about its evolutionary history.

“For a long time, people have been trying to understand what a normal healthy microbiome is,” said Warinner, assistant professor of anthropology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Sally Starling Seaver Assistant Professor at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute. “If we only have people today that we’re analyzing from completely industrialized contexts and that already have high disease burdens, is that healthy and normal? We started to ask: What are the core members of the microbiome? Which species and groups of bacteria have actually co-evolved with us the longest?”

Harvard Professor Christina Warinner, Ph.D. ’10, researches diet and expansion of the human brain.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard file photo

Christina Warinner.

The scientists analyzed the fossilized dental plaque of both modern humans and Neanderthals and compared them to those of humanity’s closest primate relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas, as well as howler monkeys, a more distant relative.

Using newly developed tools and methods, they genetically analyzed billions of DNA fragments preserved in the fossilized plaque to reconstruct their genomes. It’s similar in theory to how archeologists painstakingly piece together ancient broken pots, but on a much larger scale.

The biggest surprise from the study was the presence of particular strains of oral bacteria that are specially adapted to break down starch. These strains, which are members of the genus Streptococcus, have a unique ability to capture starch-digesting enzymes from human saliva, which they then use to feed themselves. The genetic machinery the bacteria uses to do this is only active when starch is part of the regular diet.

Both the Neanderthals and the ancient humans that scientists studied had these starch-adapted strains in their dental plaque while most of the primates, who feast almost exclusively on non-starchy plant parts, like fruits, stems, and leaves, had almost no streptococci that could break down starch.

Close up of ancient tooth.
Close up of a row of Chimpanzee teeth.

Close-up of ancient dental calculus on an ancient human tooth. Thin rings of dental calculus surround the teeth on a wild adult female chimpanzee mandible from Kibale National Park, Uganda.

Photos by Felix Wey/Werner Siemens Foundation, and Richard Wrangham

“It seems to be a very human-specific evolutionary trait that our Streptococcus acquired the ability to do this,” Warinner said.

The findings also push back on the idea that Neanderthals were top carnivores, given that the “brain requires glucose as a nutrient source and meat alone is not a sufficient source,” Warinner said.

Researchers said the finding makes sense because for hunter-gatherer societies around the world, starch-rich foods — roots, tubers (like potatoes), and forbs, as well as nuts and seeds, for example — are important and reliable nutritionsources. In fact, starch currently makes up about 60 percent of calories for humans worldwide.

“Its availability is much more predictable across the annual season for tropical hunter-gatherers,” said Richard W. Wrangham, Ruth B. Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology and one of the paper’s co-authors. “These new data make every sense to me, reinforcing the newer view about Neanderthals that their diets were more sapiens-like than once thought, [meaning] starch-rich and cooked.”

The research also identified 10 groups of bacteria that have been part of the human and primate oral microbiome for more than 40 million years and are still shared today. While these bacteria may serve important and beneficial roles, relatively little is known about them. Some don’t even have names.

Small flakes of dental calculus undergo decalcification before processing, to remove minerals and release the DNA for sequencing.

Photo by Christina Warinner

Scientist holding test tubes.

Focusing on Neanderthals and today’s humans, the analysis surprisingly showed the oral microbiomes of Neanderthals and today’s humans were almost indistinguishable. Only when looking at individual bacterial strains could they see some differences. For example, during the Ice Age, ancient humans living in Europe before 14,000 years ago shared some bacterial strains with Neanderthals that are no longer found in modern humans.

The differences and similarities from the study are all part of what makes us human, Warinner said. It also touches on the power of analyzing the tiny microbes that live in the human body, she said.

“It shows that our microbiome encodes valuable information about our own evolution that sometimes gives us hints at things that otherwise leave no traces at all,” Warinner said.

This work was partially supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the European Research Council, the German Research Foundation, the National Research Foundation of South Africa, the Czech National Institutional Support, Science and Technological Development of the Republic of Serbia, the Swedish Research Council Formas, the Werner Siemens Foundation, and the Max Planck Society.