Chew on This – Prehistoric Humans Had Better Teeth Than Us

A recent study reveals why ancient humans had more disease-resistant teeth than us.

By Dr. Mehmood Asghar PhD., M Phil, BDS

Thanks to modern dentistry, we have straighter, whiter teeth and much more attractive smiles than our prehistoric ancestors. So naturally, one would think that compared to prehistoric humans, and with all the oral healthcare products available, we would also have healthier and stronger teeth, right? Wrong – that's not the case.

If that sounds unbelievable, there's evidence from a recent research study published in Nature Genetics. Researchers took the supra- and sub-gingival calculus samples from the teeth of prehistoric European human skeletons (n = 34) – dating from the Mesolithic to the medieval period and extracted the DNA sequences of the skeletons. They also used primers to detect Streptococcus mutans and Porphyromonas gingivalis in the calculus samples and then compared them with modern human teeth.

Here is the interesting part – Study(1) showed that prehistoric humans, the so-called hunter-gatherers, had really good teeth! Ancient humans had lower loads of harmful disease-causing bacteria and a significantly lower risk of developing tooth decay and gum disease. However, once farming populations expand, there's a massive change. Huge amounts of gum disease and cavities start cropping up," says Alan Cooper, Ph.D., Director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA.

But Why?

By now, you must be asking the same question – why?

According to Cooper, the reason behind modern-day humans having weaker and more disease-prone teeth is all because of their diet. The hunter-gatherers relied upon meat, vegetable, and nuts for their nutrition. But on the other hand, the modern-day diet consists mainly of processed foods rich in carbohydrates and sugars.

The increase in the carbohydrate and sugar content in the modern human diet is the main culprit behind the increased incidence of dental problems such as periodontal disease and tooth decay. This is because more carbohydrates are available to the harmful bacteria to release by-products that are pre-cursors to gum disease and tooth demineralization.

"What you've really created is an ecosystem which is very low in diversity and full of opportunistic pathogens that have jumped in to utilize the resources which are now free," said Dr. Cooper.

Further Proof

If these findings are not shocking enough, here is another interesting scientific finding for you to chew on. Researchers discovered from human skeletal remains buried in the Al khuday cemetery in Sudan 2000 years ago – those who ate the purple nutsedge weed – had teeth that were surprisingly resistant to tooth decay and other dental problems(2). This study was published in the PLOS ONE journal and showcased on the National Geographic website.

Analysis of the hardened plaque samples of the skeletons showed that these people probably ingested the weed as food or medicine, despite its bitter taste. Other research studies have shown that the purple nutsedge has inherent antibacterial properties, preventing the harmful bacteria from flourishing. 

As it turns out, our diet is to be blamed for the increased prevalence of tooth decay in the modern world. And our increased reliance on processed and soft foods has resulted in a considerable change in the oral flora of modern humans compared to the prehistoric ones, which consists of an increased ratio of disease-causing microbes.

Let's face it – as modern-day humans, we need to change our dietary habits and rely more on fruits, fresh vegetables, and non-processed foods to better protect against common dental issues. At the same time, we must also ensure optimal oral hygiene to prevent plaque and tartar deposition. Unfortunately, it seems that the ancient humans were wiser than us= – at least in terms of their dietary choices. But in our defense, that was all they could eat in those times.

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Author: Dr. Mehmood Asghar is a dentist by profession and an Assistant Professor of Dental Biomaterials at the National University of Medical Sciences, Pakistan. Dr. Asghar received his undergraduate and postgraduate dental qualifications from the National University of Science and Technology (NUST). He obtained a Ph.D. in Restorative Dentistry from Universiti Malaya, Malaysia. Besides his hectic clinical and research activities, Dr. Asghar likes to write evidence-based, informative articles for dental professionals and patients. Dr. Asghar has published several articles in international, peer-reviewed journals.


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