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Dentistry Ohio

Updates on the History of Tooth Decay

Anthropologist have known for decades that across the ages there have been countless examples of indigenous populations who never brush or floss their teeth, that also show no signs of dental caries/tooth decay.   On the surface it seems so counter-intuitive.  How can it be that teeth so heavily coated in bacterial plaque can remain free of decay?  The answer quite simply is totally dependent on the diet of these indigenous populations.  Our oral bacteria eat the same foods we do and a diet free of any simple carbohydrate sources simply is incapable of contributing to tooth decay.

A couple of particular examples can be found with skull studies from both the Alaskan Inuit and Yucatan Mayan cultures.  In each case anthropologists can pin-point exactly when the Europeans began doing trade with these cultures.  As soon as the Inuit or Maya people began eating the processed carbohydrate foods (flour, sugar) from the European diets they began showing signs of rampant tooth decay problems.

Largely we thought we had a pretty good handle on the caries process and the timeline for humanity’s haunt from tooth decay.  In January of this year however, reports surfaced that shed an entirely new light on this piece of history.   Reporting online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers shared that they have discovered North African skulls from the hunter-gatherers of the Pleistocene Age (about 10,000 years BC) that are heavily afflicted with dental caries!  

Louise Humphrey and her colleagues from the Natural History Museum in London found that an ancient diet heavily dependent on acorns and pine nuts contributed to the discovery of cavities in 51.2% of adult/permanent teeth.  This they point out is a rate “comparable to modern industrialized populations with a diet high in refined sugars and processed cereals.” 

The speculation lifted from this research is that as this culture moved away from a hunter-gatherer model and more toward the harvesting of naturally produced wild plant food sources their lifestyle became more sedentary.  Likely too they speculate, was a shift in the species of bacteria found within the oral environment.  Perhaps it was during this piece of biologic history that microbiotic species such as Streptococcus mutans first evolved.  Today we understand that it is largely this S. mutans stain of bacteria that is notorious for the nearly instantaneous conversion of simple carbohydrate foods into acidic cariogenic waste. 

At any rate this is evidence that people were suffering from tooth decay several thousand years earlier than we ever knew before!  Interesting?  Well, maybe not to you but to the dental nerd news just doesn’t get much juicier!  


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