Science Questions

When did humans develop tooth decay?

Mon, 18th Apr 2016

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Korochkina Daria asked:

Speaking about primeval men. I have heard that the caries disease is to be

found only among 1 of 100 hunters and gatherers, whereas every 2nd farmer† 50 of 100) is subjected to caries.


Wasn't the food that the farmers grew nutritious enough? I wonder whether today our teeth are more healthy than our hunting and gathering ancestor's were.


Kat Arney put this question to Cambridge archaeologist Margarita Gleba...Human tooth

Margarita - Right, I think I know where this question comes from.  There was a study, just a couple of years ago by Dr Alan Cooper and his team of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, and they were looking at genetic material trapped in dental plaque (known as calculus) from skulls spanning from hunter gatherers, so weíre talking Paleolithic period before about 10,000 BC, farmers from the Neolithic so this is from 10,000 to about 5 to 4,000 BC, and all the way through to modern humans.

This material contained microbial DNA which allowed them to build a picture of how and why the microbes that we contain in our mouths have changed. The two main species for bacteria that are known to contribute to tooth decay, or carriol disease, appear in humans only with the advent of Neolithic, so with the appearance of farming. It seems a straightforward relationship but, actually, itís not as easy as that because we have evidence from contemporary societies that consumed a fair amount of sugars in their diet but do not have tooth decay like the Neolithic farmers did and unlike the Paleolithic hunter gatherers who supposedly had very good teeth because they were consuming lots of meat and very little sugar.

Kat - So, in theory, they would have had better looking teeth and the idea of our ancestors with these horrible, hairy faces and horrible, teeth isnít actually true?  They probably hadÖ

Chris - Not just you KatÖ

Kat - Well I know - you know my ancestors.  But they actually probably had quite nice teeth.

Margarita - Well, supposedly they had better teeth and, at least, the skulls that are preserved from those periods seem to indicate that they were in pretty good shape.  Much better, in fact, than even our own teeth.  We have terrible teeth compared to hunter gatherers, actually. But to go back, actually to the question - what caused the tooth decay in the early farmers.  It is not the sugars but, actually, the starches, and starches are recognised today but a lot of dentists as also the main cause of tooth decayÖ

Chris - Because what - starch gets metabolised into sugar - doesn't it?

Margarita - The starch yes, exactly, but it sticks to your teeth, and itís not just any kind of starch; itís the grain starches that do and if you think that the transition to farming and consuming grains, that would have been the major switch in human evolution.

Kat - I eat eggs, and my teeth are as great as they are...


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When I was a child my father dug lots of indian artifacts. I saw hundreds of teeth. Still have a few. Most were worn out from use, but had no cavities. In fact, can't say I ever saw any cavities in indian teeth. OokieWonderslug, Tue, 25th Oct 2011

Sugar was at a premium - and it is sugars that acting with tooth-born bacteria that create acidic compounds that cause dental decay.  As Ookie mentioned there was a lot of wear (lots of impurities in ground grain etc) and people died much younger; so less time for decay to occur and more chance for it to be worn away. imatfaal, Wed, 26th Oct 2011

There certainly were cavities in all ancient humans and hominids. 

But, the prevalence rate I'm seeing was much lower, perhaps on the order of 1% to 5% of the teeth recovered in ancient teeth.  As many skulls are missing teeth, I assume they can identify teeth that have been lost before the death of the specimen.

Here is a good review article about ancient Tooth Decay.

This discusses ancient dentistry care as far back as 7,000 BC.

CliffordK, Thu, 27th Oct 2011

Certainly tooth decay existed in prehistory.

Here are a couple of Mayan Sculptures, I presume from at least 500 years ago, perhaps much older.

I can't tell if they are two depictions of the same figure, or different figures.  Obviously depictions of bad teeth in sculptures is not indicative of the overall prevalence of tooth decay, but it is at least an indication that it occurred, especially in the elderly.

Many ancient skulls appear to be missing teeth, but without knowing more about both the skulls and dentistry, it would be hard to tell if the teeth were lost before or after death.

CliffordK, Mon, 20th Feb 2012

One reason tooth decay might not have been as bad as we'd expect is that according to a story I heard on CBC, decay is worse if sugary food bathes the teeth for an extended period of time, as with constant snacking, sipping on sugary drinks, etc. Primitive man may not have eaten as regularly, limitiing the amount of time for that to occur. cheryl j, Tue, 21st Feb 2012

Most tooth loss in skulls is due to the death of the tooth and surrounding bone. The way to tell is by looking at the tooth socket. As with the above skull, the tooth sockets are open. When a ling person or animal looses a tooth, the surrounding bone grows into the space taken by the tooth's root.

It is easy to see that an open socket invites germs and infection into the body by providing a wet, dark place for the infection to grow. By filling in the socket, the body  protects itself from death.

Man - that kid had a funnly-looking head! JimBob, Wed, 29th Feb 2012

A bit of a problem is no real way of comparing health, To survive any appreciable lifespan requires eating and after civilisation beyond settlements , with the oncoming control of peoples movements by jurisdiction, the food substances available would serve no true value to compare the result upon teeth, but probably better in pre history settlement because the food stuffs could be better chosen or continued of supply(context: replaced to another substance as needed to continue "overall bodily health - and thus teeth") with less competition against aggressors/competors.
The paleo diet is an interesting problem after pre history settlements because of the problem of criminal laziness as a concept(parasite), "less for everyone".

nicephotog, Wed, 18th Apr 2012

Korochkina Daria  asked the Naked Scientists:

Speaking about primeval men. I have heard that the caries disease is to be found only among 1 of 100 hunters and gatherers, whereas every 2nd farmer  50 of 100) is subjected to caries.

Wasn't the food that the farmers grew nutritious enough? I wonder whether today our teeth are more healthy than our hunting and gathering ancestor's were.

What do you think? Daria, Tue, 19th Apr 2016

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