One of the little known benefits of studying ancient human teeth is that during my weeks or months of analyzing skeletal remains, I suddenly become EXTREMELY CONCERNED about my own dental health. Brushing twice daily, flossing, gargling with mouth wash, you name it – for the entire duration of data collection, I am a dentist’s dream. Once I’m out of the field these tactics drop off precipitously, and my abiding love of Coke Zero, or anything containing sugar quickly works to balance the scales.
However, one of the reasons I’m so assiduous about my dental health in the field is that many ancient teeth show evidence of pathology related to diet and lack of access to dental care. In particular, I tend to grow concerned about my fondness for saccharine foods when I see things like this:
Colloquially known as “cavities”, dental caries represent areas of tooth demineralization that result from the fermentation of sugars by acidogenic bacteria that grow on dental plaque (Goodman and Martin 2002; Roberts and Manchester 2005). Teeth vary in their susceptibility to caries, with anterior teeth like incisors and canines less likely to be affected. Posterior teeth like molars are more cavity-prone (Buikstra and Ubelaker 1994). Caries are also more likely to be found on occlusal surfaces with complex topography, or in the spaces between neighboring teeth, where food can become trapped and difficult to dislodge. They can also occur on tooth roots if the root is exposed to cariogenic bacteria due to periodontal disease (Ortner 2003). Caries can be differentiated from taphonomic damage because the holes are smooth-walled and rounded, almost as if an insect had bored into the tooth. In contrast, post-mortem damage tends to be sharp-edged and fractured.
The prevalence of caries has been shown to significantly increase with the global transition to agriculture, likely due to the increased dependency on sugar-rich domesticated crops (Cohen and Armelagos 1984).
Or in my case, due to the increased dependency on Poptarts brought about by the significant environmental stressor of dissertating. Which reminds me, I should probably go to the dentist soon.
Note: For a great article on how the Romans handled caries, head over to Forbes and check out Dr. Kristina Killgrove’s piece “Roman Forum Yields Stash of Teeth Extracted by Ancient Dentist”
Image Credits: All images taken at the Museum of Jaén in Summer 2014.
Buikstra, Jane and Doulgas Ubelaker (eds) (1994) Standards for Data Collection from Human Skeletal Remains. Fayetteville: Arkansas Archaeological Survey Research Series No. 44.
Cohen, M.N., and George J. Armelagos (1984)Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture. Academic Press, New York.
Goodman, Alan H., George J. Armelagos, and Jerome C. Rose (1980). Enamel Hypoplasias as Indicators of Stress in Three Prehistoric Populations from the Lower Illinois River Valley Human Biology, 52 (3), 515-528
Ortner, Donald J. (2003) Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains. Academic Press: San Diego.