People have been experiencing dental decay ever since we became human. The first evidence of oral health problems in humans arises about 1.8 million years ago, but it has been thought that widespread tooth decay wasn’t a problem until the rise of agriculture, which allowed people access to more sugars and carbohydrates. However, evidence from a new find shows that some isolated populations of prehistoric people likely experienced levels of decay comparable to modern humans, only without the benefit of modern dentistry.
The newly-described settlement was in the Grotte des Pigeons, located in Morocco. The population had apparently used the cave for thousands of years, from about 15,000 years ago to 13,700 years ago. In looking at more than 50 skeletons unearthed at this site over the past ten years, researchers were amazed at what they saw in the mouths of the people.
The people in this settlement had extensive tooth decay. Only three of the people had no tooth decay, and more than half of the surviving teeth had some evidence of decay. In addition, they were suffering from abscesses in the jaw related to tooth decay, the exact situation that a root canal is designed to correct.. In many cases, the abscesses perforated, leaving a deep hole in the jawbone.
Based on the evidence of decay, it is thought that many of these people were in constant pain due to their tooth decay.
The cause of the decay seems to be a very rich local plant source: sweet acorns. When cooked up, these became sugary, sticky foods that may have stuck to teeth, feeding oral bacteria whose acidic secretions led to tooth damage and cavities. With no evidence of oral hygiene apparent, it would have been nearly impossible to prevent or treat oral health problems.
In this population, the extreme levels of tooth decay would have had to be dealt with without the help of dentists, because they were earlier than the earliest filling, and earlier than the earliest drilled teeth.
However, these people were not completely without dental skills, the people at this site apparently practiced ritual tooth extraction. They drew out the top two central incisors. These had been removed in about 90% of people, far more than would be expected if it were just in response to decay. And with the number of other cavities in teeth that had not been extracted, it the ritual were being performed for health, we might have expected more teeth would be removed, and that it wouldn’t always be the same ones.
Fortunately, though, even though modern humans eat an advanced diet high in refined sugars, modern dentistry largely makes up for it. To learn how, please contact Nicolas A. Ravon, DDS, MSD in Beverly Hills.