Dental plaque: The microbial gunk that hardens on enamel is revealing our deep previous

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Plaque fossilises whereas we’re nonetheless alive. Now, dental calculus is giving up the secrets and techniques of our historic ancestors, from what they ate to how they interacted and advanced

People



15 September 2021
, up to date 23 November 2022

Spencer Wilson

IT IS the one a part of your physique that fossilises when you’re nonetheless alive,” says Tina Warinner on the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human Historical past in Jena, Germany.

To see what she is describing, stand in entrance of a mirror and look at the rear surfaces of your decrease entrance enamel. Relying in your dental hygiene, you’ll most likely see a skinny, yellowish-brown line the place the enamel meets the gum. That is plaque, a residing layer of microbes that grows on the floor of enamel – or, extra precisely, on the floor of older layers of plaque. If it isn’t brushed or scraped off, plaque hardens as minerals dissolved in saliva precipitate out into it, killing the microbes and petrifying them right into a stony substance known as dental calculus or tartar.

To you and me, this rock-hard excrescence may appear somewhat repulsive, but it surely has turn into a chewy matter of analysis amongst archaeologists. The place it was as soon as thought of mere gobshite to be scraped off and discarded, it’s now recognised as a time capsule extraordinaire. “Dental calculus is a treasure trove of knowledge,” says Katerina Guschanski at Uppsala College in Sweden. Over the previous 20 years, it has revealed some shocking and sometimes quirky particulars of the lives of our ancestors. However current analysis is way extra bold. “We spent quite a few years making an attempt to know dental calculus and tips on how to use it to actually get at some deeper evolutionary questions,” says Warinner. That’s now paying off, and dental calculus is throwing mild on huge questions on the place people got here from and the place we’re going.

Warinner …

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