Chew on This: Ancient human jawbones from the Niah Cave may hint at past diets

Chew on This: Ancient human jawbones from the Niah Cave may hint at past diets

Little is known about the early hunter-gatherer populations that lived on islands in Southeast Asia, as human remains from the Late Pleistocene and early Holocene are extremely rare. The Niah Cave in the northeast of Borneo has been identified as a promising archaeological site for learning about the early humans who dwelled in this region.

To learn more about these early inhabitants, Darren Curnoe and colleagues from the University of New South Wales examined three human mandibles that had been excavated from the west mouth of the Niah Cave in 1957. Using radioactive dating techniques, the researchers estimate that one of the mandibles is 28,000 to 30,000 years old, while the other two are at least 11,000 and 10,000 years old, respectively. The oldest mandible of the three is smaller and more robust compared to other Late Pleistocene mandibles, and suggesting that it may have been subject to strain caused by consuming tough or dried meats or palm plants, a diet that has previously been identified in the Niah Cave.

The researchers suggest that their study helps provide insight into the diet of ancient people living near tropical rainforests, in a region that is known to have faced ancient economic difficulties. Through their potential consumption of raw plant foods and dried meats, the hunter-gatherer populations living in this region around the Late Pleistocene may have been adapting to their economically challenging environment.

“These early modern humans were seemingly adapted to a difficult life in the tropical rainforests with their very small bodies and ruggedly build jaws from chewing really tough foods,” Curnoe says. “They tell us a lot about the challenges faced by the earliest people living in island Southeast Asia.”

Reference:  Curnoe D, Datan I, Zhao J-x, Leh Moi Ung C, Aubert M, Sauffi MS, et al. (2018) Rare Late Pleistocene-early Holocene human mandibles from the Niah Caves (Sarawak, Borneo). PLoS ONE 13(6): e0196633. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0196633

 Image Credit: Darren Curnoe

 

Author

Tessa is the Journal Media Manager at PLOS. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with degrees in Rhetoric and Music. She can be reached by email at tgregory@plos.org and on Twitter at @tessagregs.

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