A Prehistoric Pain in the… Tooth

Pain in the Tooth DigVenturesHaving always assumed those traumatic dentist visits growing up were caused by nothing more than your own penchant for toffee and modern human’s destructive obsession with a sugary diet, you may actually be surprised to learn that eating a bag of crisps is in fact worse for your teeth than a bar of chocolate.

This fact has lead archaeologists at the National History Museum to reappraise the first evidence for tooth decay, finding that it was prevalent in early hunter-gatherer societies due to their starchy diets – far earlier in our cultural evolution than originally thought.

As reported recently by our friends over at Past Horizons, the previous hypothesis was that dental disease originated alongside the introduction of farming. At this point, about 10,000 years ago, changes to food processing led to a diet reliant on cultivated plant foods and with them the fermentable carbohydrates that cause tooth decay.

This theory has been questioned after the analysis of 52 adult hunter-gatherer skeletons found in a cave in Taferalt, Morocco and dating from between 15,000 and 13,700 years ago. With over half displaying signs of tooth decay and only three having no sign of cavities whatsoever they suggest people suffered from dental disease well before the origin of farming.

The food that was causing all this pain and misery? No not chocolate, not crisps… nuts. Classed as one of our health foods today, a heavily nutty diet was causing cavities in prehistoric teeth faster than you can say ouch. Excavations at Taforalt showed evidence of methodical harvesting and processing of wild foods such as sweet acorns, pine nuts and land snails. In particular it was the sweet and starchy acorns that were causing the biggest toothache. These finds also give the indication that, due to their intensive nut harvesting diet, people had settled down to a more sedentary way of living earlier than we previously thought.

A common trend in most skeletons was tooth evulsion with many having had one or two healthy incisors removed in late childhood or early adulthood, most likely for cultural practices such as a rite of passage. And this same skill could have been applied to primitive dentistry in a desperate attempt to ease the toothache and abscesses of these poor in pain prehistoric people. Like the central incisor in the photo above…

If in doubt pull it out!

Image: © Isabelle De Groote, showing tooth decay in a young adult hunter-gatherer from Taforalt, Morocco.

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Written by Aisling Serrant

An all round museum educator and enthusiast, Aisling's the Family Festival Coordinator at the Museum of London Docklands.

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