Dental caries in South African fossil hominins


  • Ian Towle Sir John Walsh Research Institute, Faculty of Dentistry, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand
  • Joel D. Irish 1.Research Centre in Evolutionary Anthropology and Palaeoecology, Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool, United Kingdom; 2.Evolutionary Studies Institute and Centre for Excellence in PaleoSciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Isabelle De Groote Department of Archaeology, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium
  • Christianne Fernée 1.Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Bristol, Bristol, United Kingdom; 2.Department of Archaeology, University of Southampton, Southampton, United Kingdom
  • Carolina Loch Sir John Walsh Research Institute, Faculty of Dentistry, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand



dental pathology, Homo naledi, Paranthropus robustus, diet, cariogenic bacteria


Once considered rare in fossil hominins, caries has recently been reported in several hominin species, requiring a new assessment of this condition during human evolution. Caries prevalence and location on the teeth of South African fossil hominins were observed and compared with published data from other hominin samples. Teeth were viewed macroscopically, with lesion position and severity noted and described. For all South African fossil hominin specimens studied to date, a total of 10 carious teeth (14 lesions), including 4 described for the first time here, have been observed. These carious teeth were found in a minimum of seven individuals, including five Paranthropus robustus, one early Homo, and one Homo naledi. All 14 lesions affected posterior teeth. The results suggest cariogenic biofilms and foods may have been present in the oral environment of a wide variety of hominins. Caries prevalence in studied fossil hominins is similar to those in pre-agricultural human groups, in which 1–5% of teeth are typically affected.


  • This study adds to the growing evidence that dental caries was present throughout the course of human evolution. Caries prevalence in the fossil species studied is similar to those in non-agricultural human groups, with 1–5% of teeth displaying cavities.
  • Differences in prevalence and position of dental caries can provide insight into dietary aspects of past populations. South African fossil hominins display lesions on their posterior teeth, suggesting sugary foods were consumed.


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How to Cite

Towle, I., Irish, J. D., De Groote, I., Fernée, C., & Loch, C. (2021). Dental caries in South African fossil hominins. South African Journal of Science, 117(3/4).



Research Article