Oxford Brookes academics discover a rare faecal sample in South Africa and create a unique snapshot of the 15th Century human diet

Friday, 19 June 2020

ancient-fecal-sample-research-800x450

Researchers at Oxford Brookes University have analysed a rare ancient faecal sample to create a snapshot of the human diet, and discover how our microbiome- the community of micro-organisms that live within the intestines of humans- has developed in response to changing eating habits over thousands of years.

Dr Riaan Rifkn (University of Pretoria and a Visiting Academic at Oxford Brookes) and Dr Simon Underdown (Reader in Biological Anthropology at Oxford Brookes) unearthed the preserved faeces during excavations of the Bushman Rock Shelter in the Limpopo Province of South Africa. Cutting-edge genetic analysis of the sample traced it to a Bantu-speaking man who lived around 1460 AD, and showed that he ate sorghum (a type of cereal), cluster figs, goat and beef.

The analysis also provided information about the intestinal or gut microbiome. These micro-organisms that live within the intestines of  humans are thought to play an important role in our health, immunity and response to certain medications. Unlike individual human genomes, the microbiome can be altered by our diet and lifestyle, including the modern ‘Western diet’ of highly processed, low fibre foods. The ‘Western diet’ has become increasingly prevalent across the world, displacing many traditional eating patterns. This dietary change has been accompanied by a shift in the type of micro-organisms found in our microbiome.

Our analyses reveal some of the causes and means by which current human microbiomes are likely to have responded to recent dietary changes, prescription medications and environmental pollutants, providing rare insight into human microbiome evolution.

Dr Simon Underdown, Reader in Biological Anthropology, Oxford Brookes University

Until very recently, it has been almost impossible to recreate the microbiome of past populations through analysis of archaeological remains. The age of the ancient faecal sample allowed the researchers to study the microbiome of a Middle Iron Age southern African, and compare it to other ancient and modern examples.

Dr Simon Underdown commented: “Our results indicate that the man was eating a mixture of food from foraging, growing plants and keeping animals. When we compared our data with Otzi the Iceman, contemporary Hadza Hunter-Gatherers of Tanzania, Malawian pastoralists, and Italians, it showed that the Bushman Rock microbiome predated the adaptations we now have to the “Western diet”, especially as the result of coffee, tea, chocolate, antibiotics and environmental pollutants.

“Our analyses reveal some of the causes and means by which current human microbiomes are likely to have responded to recent dietary changes, prescription medications and environmental pollutants, providing rare insight into human microbiome evolution following the advent of the Neolithic humans around 12,000 years ago.”

The paper is published in Microbiome.

Discover a range of Anthropology courses and research underway in the Oxford Brookes University Department of Social Sciences.