Prehistoric teeth show rotten oral health
SUMMARY: Archeologists discovered some of the earliest evidence for widespread tooth decay in Moroccan skeletons. With so much mouth rot, they probably had some serious bad breath.
Posted: January 9, 2014
Stone Age hunter-gatherers could've used some toothpaste.
The rise of tooth decay in humans is normally associated with the beginning of agriculture around 12,000 years ago. During this time, known as the Holocene Period, people started to consume more carbohydrate- and sugar-heavy diets.
However, in a recent study of Stone Age human mouths dating between 15,000 to 13,700 years ago, archeologists discovered some of the earliest evidence for widespread tooth decay. The findings revealed that cavities were common much earlier than researchers previously believed.
The skeletons were recovered from Grotte des Pigeons, a Moroccan cave, by a team of researchers from the Natural History Museum in London. The group examined the jaw remains of 52 adults who were buried together in the cave. All but three had severe cavities. As decay goes hand in hand with other oral health problems like gum disease and constant dry mouth, we can only imagine how bad their breath might've been.
This frequency of dental caries were comparable to that of modern societies with diets full of refined sugars.
"This evidence predates the first signs of food production by several thousand years," reads the study, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The Agricultural Revolution heralded a new method of processing wheat and barley into sugar-rich foods, such as bread and porridge. Although many of us can't imagine the existence of food without a simple loaf of bread, the Holocene Period is when our wheaty staple came about, putting a dent in humans' oral health. But this new study highlights that humans suffered from decay thousands of years before this.
"This is the first time we've seen such bad oral health in a pre-agricultural population," Isabelle De Groote, who co-authored the report, told New Scientist. "These people's mouths were often affected by both cavities in the teeth and abscesses, and they would have suffered from frequent toothache."
So, the big question is: What were these hunters and gatherers eating? According to the study, the early North Africans likely consumed wild plants, such as acorns and pine nuts.
"We infer that increased reliance on wild plants rich in fermentable carbohydrates and changes in food processing caused an early shift toward a disease-associated oral microbiota in this population," the authors explained to the International Business Times. "A heavy reliance on certain plant foods well before people started to rely on cultivated plants could, in certain circumstances, lead to significant [tooth decay] levels."