Did prehistoric people get tooth problems?

What do you do when the dentist won't be free for another few thousand years?...
05 March 2020

SKULL

A human skull.

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Question

Did people have tooth problems thousands of years ago, before any dentists existed?

Answer

We put this painful-sounding question to bioarchaeologist Emma Pomeroy...

Emma - Yeah, they did. I mean if we think about the kind of tooth problems we have today, we associate them with eating too much sugar. So we get things like cavities and we have to get them filled. And while people didn't get them as much in the past before we had like refined sugar and foods like that, they did still have these problems and we can see evidence of a tooth problem, it's actually going right back to dinosaurs, but certainly in people, and it depends what they ate in part. So even some hunter-gatherers who we think are eating a very kind of, healthy diet with not much sugar in it, in some populations where they actually relied more on sugary fruits, for example, they could have actually, really high rates of cavities that were similar, in fact to some modern populations today who do eat refined sugar.

Phil - And you sort of just have to deal with it?

Emma - Yeah, I mean before dentists it would have been a bit of a nightmare, I think. We do see that there were attempts actually to try and treat cavities in the teeth or damage to the teeth. We've got examples that go back as far as kind of, 14-15,000 years. And with those they were using things like bitumen to try and fill holes and bits of hair, and things like that.

Phil - Oh that sounds horribly painful!

Emma - Yeah, it doesn't sound good. There's one from about 6,000 years ago, where they've tried to fill a crack in the tooth with beeswax and that sounds a little bit nicer to me. But going back much further, we can actually see what we call interproximal grooves. And these are grooves between the teeth where individuals have actually been sticking, say sticks or feathers, or something between the teeth, presumably to try and relieve pain. And they've been doing that so much it's actually gouged out a groove in the tooth.

Chris S - Was it not just tooth picking? They were trying to dislodge bits of meat and other muck from between the teeth?

Emma - But it tends to be between particular pairs of teeth, and that suggested that it's a chronic issue with those particular teeth, either that or it's just an idiosyncratic behavior. So someone's individual, kind of, habits. But in some cases, there is one Neanderthal example where we can actually see that they had periodontitis, so inflammation of the gums, and they may well have been doing that to try and alleviate some of the pain and discomfort associated with it.

Chris S - So you could see the decay there alongside the evidence of the scraping.

Emma - Yeah, so in that case, what you can see is that actually the bone that holds the teeth in, has started to recede back in response to that infection of the gums. But we don't see that in all cases. So maybe sometimes it was just people sitting and picking away at their teeth out of boredom or something.

Phil - It all makes you grateful for dentists today, doesn't it?

Emma - Absolutely. That's what I always say to our students when we're doing practicals.

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