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Thread: Ancient Tooth Decay

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    2 out of 2 members found this post helpful.

    Ancient Tooth Decay



    I don't know whether I'm posting this in the right section, and it's actually about North Africa, not Europe, but it could be a story about the eating habits of ancestors of some Europeans. Someone called Jonathon Amos wrote this story for the BBC News website. The thing I found interesting about it was that the story was about sedentary hunter/gatherers.

    "Scientists have found some of the earliest evidence for widespread tooth decay in humans. It comes from the skeletal remains of Stone-Age hunter-gatherers who lived in what is now Morocco more than 13,700 years ago. The researchers tell the PNAS journal that the individuals were eating a lot of high-carbohydrate nutty foods. The poor condition of their teeth suggests they were often in agony. "At a certain point, the tooth nerve dies but up until that moment, the pain is very bad and if you get an abscess the pain is excruciating because of the pressure on the jaw," explained Dr Louise Humphrey, from London's Natural History Museum."Then, of course, the bone eventually perforates and the abscess drains away, and we see this in a lot of the jaw remains that we studied." With all our sugary foods, tooth decay has become a ubiquitous problem for modern societies, but it was not always quite so bad. Dental health took a definite turn for the worse when people settled into agricultural communities with domesticated crops and started to consume far more carbohydrates. But even in earlier hunter-gatherer societies, it seems, the sugar-rich content in some plant foods was causing difficulties. Scientists reviewed the dental condition of 52 skeletons dug up at the Grotte des Pigeons complex at Taforalt in eastern Morocco over the past 10 years. These skeletons covered a period from 13,700 years ago to about 15,000 years ago. All bar three individuals displayed tooth decay, with cavities or other lesions affecting more than half of the surviving teeth. In some individuals, the oral health was so bad that destructive abscesses had developed. Wild plant remains at Taforalt indicate these Stone Age people were snacking frequently on sweet acorns, pine nuts and pistachios. Snails were also popular. With little if any oral hygiene, the Taforalt diet would have fuelled the mouth bacteria that produce the acid that rots tooth enamel. As well as pain, the individuals on occasion probably had extremely bad breath. What is interesting about this study is that it identifies high rates of tooth decay several thousand years before the wide-scale adoption of agricultural practices.

    But although the Taforalt people were still gathering wild plants, they had nonetheless become a relatively sedentary community. This is evidenced from the long sequence of burials at Grotte des Pigeons and its deep "rubbish tip" containing plant discards - factors that enabled the scientists to examine both a large number of individuals and tie their oral health to the types of foods they were consuming. Sweet acorns were a particularly dominant feature in the diet, said Dr Humphrey, and may have been the prime cause of much of the dental decay. "Sweet acorns are neat, easily storable packages of carbohydrate. We think they were cooking them, and that would have made them sticky. The cooking process would have already started to break down the carbohydrates, but the stickiness of the food would then have got into the gaps in the teeth and literally stuck around. And if you've already got cavities, it becomes a bit of a vicious circle." It is clear the Taforalt individuals practiced cultural modification of the teeth. In more than 90% of cases, one or both upper-central incisors (the top front teeth) had been removed. Whether rotten teeth were also removed is uncertain, however. "You don't normally get bad decay on the upper-central incisors, so this must have been a ritual removal. Why they did it, we don't know; and so although they obviously knew how to remove teeth, we don't have the evidence to say they were also removing unhealthy teeth." Some of the earliest evidence of dentistry comes from about 6,500 years ago when beeswax was used to fill cavities."

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    Very interesting article, thanks. Did they say who had more cavities, men or women?
    Be wary of people who tend to glorify the past, underestimate the present, and demonize the future.

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    1 out of 2 members found this post helpful.
    Interesting piece, Aberdeen. In fact you just beat me to posting it myself

    In regards to the beeswax used for filing cavities, I think I read the evidence for this, came from a tooth found with part of a 6,500 year old jaw from Slovenia.

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    1 out of 1 members found this post helpful.
    Quote Originally Posted by LeBrok View Post
    Very interesting article, thanks. Did they say who had more cavities, men or women?
    No, I didn't see anything in the article about that, although it would be interesting to know the answer. If women were doing most of the gathering, I suppose they would consume more of the carbs, but I sometimes wonder how much of the "men hunt and women gather" idea is just cultural bias on the part of anthropologists and how much of it was reality. I've watched enough TV shows about the few remaining nomadic hunting and gathering societies to know that among the still existing groups such a bias does exist but it's just a partial one and in particular fishing, which is usually more productive than hunting, is often a shared activity. And these were apparently sedentary hunters and gatherers, and the location where the remains were found seem to be mountainous. There would probably have been some animals to hunt and some fish in the mountain streams, but it sounds as if these people were mostly vegetarian eaters of carbohydrates. So perhaps the men and women would have had equal rates of tooth decay, but the news story doesn't address that and the story didn't provide any link to the research.

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    Quote Originally Posted by hope View Post
    Interesting piece, Aberdeen. In fact you just beat me to posting it myself

    In regards to the beeswax used for filing cavities, I think I read the evidence for this, came from a tooth found with part of a 6,500 year old jaw from Slovenia.
    Thanks. The article didn't give any more information about beeswax and cavities, but I should be able to find something now I know the date and location.

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    0 out of 1 members found this post helpful.
    Quote Originally Posted by Aberdeen View Post
    Thanks. The article didn't give any more information about beeswax and cavities, but I should be able to find something now I know the date and location.
    Here is the piece I read if you are interested, Aberdeen. I did not give the link in my previous post because I mentioned it only as an end note, the original piece of news regarding the tooth decay being the point of the post, and which you covered well.
    However might I suggest you double check this, as Nobody1 seems to have had a negative opinion to my earlier post here, when I stated this.

    http://www.plosone.org/article/info:...l.pone.0044904

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    Thanks, Hope. That's a really interesting abstract. It shows just how ingenious ancient people were. I don't know why anyone would have a negative opinion of your earlier post.

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    1 out of 1 members found this post helpful.
    Thanks for the article, Aberdeen...

    One of the most interesting aspects of it for me was the fact that hunter/gatherers had such high levels of tooth decay from the high consumption of carbohydrates. The things I had read seemed to indicate that tooth decay was a consequence of the high cereals consumption attendant upon the adoption of an agricultural lifestyle.

    Also, this study provided further evidence that some hunter-gatherers groups were indeed very sedentary. That seemed to be the situation in the Levant as well, with the Natufians, and in the Balkans as some studies have shown.

    I wonder if we have been putting the cart before the horse. Perhaps a sedentary lifestyle didn't result from the agricultural revolution, but was, in fact, one of the contributing factors to the development of agriculture. And, perhaps, the adoption of these more sedentary life-styles by hunter gatherers of this period was in part a function of the improved climate, and the attendant increase of plants and animals, and fish, which made traveling long distances to find food increasingly unnecessary.

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    You may be right, Angela. One of the things I hadn't really thought much about until now is the implication of the fact that many plants, particularly fruit and nut trees, give a very bountiful harvest but only for a short time. In other words, you have a lot of food that needs to be processed and stored. And nomads can't protect a large harvest, since they can't carry large amounts of food with them. So perhaps nomadism was less common than we think, and limited mainly to people living in more difficult terrain who didn't have access to large amounts of seasonal wild plant harvests. But back when there weren't many people in the world, a small group could settle beside a lake where there were fig and almond trees or whatever, and feel little incentive to move on. But once their population increased to a certain point, either the whole group would have to become nomadic, or part of the group would have to go elsewhere, or they could try to find ways to have their favorite plants produce more, hence the beginning of farming. Perhaps the first farmers were mainly arborists.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Aberdeen View Post
    You may be right, Angela. One of the things I hadn't really thought much about until now is the implication of the fact that many plants, particularly fruit and nut trees, give a very bountiful harvest but only for a short time. In other words, you have a lot of food that needs to be processed and stored. And nomads can't protect a large harvest, since they can't carry large amounts of food with them. So perhaps nomadism was less common than we think, and limited mainly to people living in more difficult terrain who didn't have access to large amounts of seasonal wild plant harvests. But back when there weren't many people in the world, a small group could settle beside a lake where there were fig and almond trees or whatever, and feel little incentive to move on. But once their population increased to a certain point, either the whole group would have to become nomadic, or part of the group would have to go elsewhere, or they could try to find ways to have their favorite plants produce more, hence the beginning of farming. Perhaps the first farmers were mainly arborists.
    That's very insightful and provides some real "food" for thought. :)

    Your post immediately brought to mind those large pits for the storage of grains that are so frequently found in Neolithic archaeological sites. Late hunter/gatherers could have used such pits as well, and filled them with nuts, which provide proteins and fats in addition to carbohydrates, and they might have dried and preserved fruits too. Who knows...if H/G's were already cooking starches, perhaps they knew how to smoke fish to preserve them.

    Strange I didn't think of this before...I come from an area with an incredible history with, and dependence on, chestnuts. In periods like the second world war, they literally lived on them. In addition to eating them roasted when fresh, or drying them to boil in milk in the winter, you can dry and then mill them and the flour can be used in the same ways that you use wheat flour. So, there's chestnut bread and cake and polenta or porridge and just about anything you can name. (And yes, it's very sweet...not to my taste actually.)There's even an antique way of just mixing the flour with water and then cooking a thin layer of batter in ceramic forms that have been heated red hot in the fire. I've always thought that probably some of the earliest pottery was used in this way.
    These are the testi being used with wheat flour batter. Testi with a lip are used for cooking a ceci flour batter too. All of those are usually eaten with cured meats and cheese.
    http://img41.imageshack.us/img41/8306/splashzs.jpg
    Nowadays they're usually eaten with fresh cheese...
    http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-ICYxjvegmO...0/DSC_0044.JPG
    (Sorry for the nostalgia, lol.)

    Anyway, maybe if this were to be validated with further studies, it would add support to the hypothesis of some of the archaeologists working in Turkey that at least some of the earliest settlements actually predated agriculture.

    Very interesting.

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    Accidently found the picture related to the article.
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/d-.../#.Us672dJDs1I

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    Ow! That looks painful. Think of how someone would suffer living with tooth decay like that for years.

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    Any thoughts regarding the removal of the upper-central incisors? Religious ritual or passage rites maybe?







    Edit: Just to clarify, it seems the teeth were likely removed for one or other of these reasons. Does any-one have any knowledge of any similar practices found elsewhere?
    Last edited by hope; 13-01-14 at 12:40.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Aberdeen View Post
    Ow! That looks painful. Think of how someone would suffer living with tooth decay like that for years.
    I don't understand why they just didn't pull out the really diseased teeth...they certainly knew how to do it. But then I suppose they wouldn't be able to chew meat...a no win situation.

    I also wonder how many of them died from infections from the abscesses. Without antibiotics those things can be really nasty.

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