The Pioneering Dentistry of Swedish Vikings in Varnhem

The recently discovered, remarkably well-preserved Viking-era jaws and teeth shed light on oral health during this intriguing historical period.

By Ayesha Khan, MD, MBA

Osteoarcheological dental remnants serve as invaluable windows into the past, offering profound insights into the lives of ancient populations. The study of dental remains provides a unique perspective on historical diets, cultural practices, health conditions, and even migration patterns. These findings enrich our understanding of ancient civilizations and shed light on the evolution of human societies, highlighting the intricate interplay between culture, biology, and the environment.

Pathological Conditions Among Vikings

The pursuit of optimal dental health is a critical component of overall well-being. Researchers from the University of Gothenburg and the Västergötlands Museum in Sweden, led by dentist Carolina Bertilsson, conducted a meticulous study on the Viking-era dental remains to understand prevalent dental conditions and their impact better. The study thoroughly analyzes 3,293 teeth across 171 individuals with both complete and partial dentitions.

This research sought to shed light on the prevalence and distribution of carious lesions and other noteworthy dental concerns within the studied population. The research team also uncovered a surprising sophistication of dental care during this ancient period.

The results of this study, published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, have captivated the scientific community with their revelations about the dental prowess of the Vikings.

Clinical Examination

The investigation utilized a comprehensive approach, integrating cutting-edge dentistry tools and X-ray techniques. It commenced with meticulous clinical examinations, employing a dental probe under a robust light source. This method facilitated a comprehensive assessment of the dental condition, allowing for the identification and documentation of carious lesions and other dental anomalies. Furthermore, radiographs were obtained for 18 individuals, serving as a valuable tool to verify and complement the clinical caries registration, thus enhancing the overall accuracy of the findings.

Notable Findings

Prevalence and Distribution of Carious Lesions

  • It was revealed that nearly half of the population, specifically 83 out of 171 individuals (49%), exhibited at least one carious lesion.
  • Surprisingly, all juvenile individuals were entirely free of caries.
  • Among the adult population, a notable 62% had at least one carious lesion, underscoring the prevalence of dental caries in this demographic, while the remaining 38% boasted a caries-free status.
  • The root surface emerged as the area most susceptible to caries, underscoring the need for targeted preventive measures and treatment interventions to address this specific vulnerability.
  • The first mandibular molar emerged as the most commonly affected tooth, signifying the importance of tailored preventive strategies focused on this dental landmark.

The prevalence of root caries observed in the examined Viking population appears to be associated with periodontal disease. This association is evidenced by clinical observations of marginal bone loss and is further supported by radiographic findings in the bitewings. It is likely that minimal oral hygiene practices (limited to toothpicking) and high consumption of starchy food lead to prolonged biofilm presence on root surfaces and contributed to gum recession and a higher risk of caries. Interestingly, areas exhibiting abrasion marks from toothpicking showed no evidence of carious lesions.

Beyond Carious Lesions

In addition to the insights gleaned regarding carious lesions, the study also unearthed other notable dental conditions.

  • Apical infections were clinically detected in 4% of the teeth, warranting further attention due to their potential implications for overall dental health.
  • A singular case of filed front teeth was documented, serving as a reminder of the diverse array of dental concerns that merit consideration within the broader scope of dental care and management.
  • The study revealed the prevalent phenomenon of tooth loss, with adults experiencing approximately 6% loss of teeth, excluding wisdom teeth, throughout their lifetimes. The issue of dental caries likely played a significant role in tooth loss (especially considering the high prevalence of caries in the remaining teeth). Still, considering other factors, such as trauma, is also crucial.

Viking Dental Care

The dental practices of the Vikings, particularly those unearthed in Varnhem, reveal intriguing insights into the complexity and resourcefulness of this ancient culture. Despite the common perception of Vikings as rugged warriors with poor dental health, evidence suggests their dental practices were surprisingly sophisticated.

In several individuals, distinct abrasion patterns resembling those caused by toothpicks were observable, suggesting a habitual practice of removing food debris from carious teeth and interproximal dental surfaces. Similar wear patterns have been documented in other Viking-era dental remains and populations dating back to the Neanderthals.

Furthermore, additional evidence of tooth manipulation was discovered, including two cases where observations on the mandibular molars suggested deliberate opening and widening of the pulpal chamber, likely as an attempt to alleviate discomfort. The research team also discovered cases of more advanced dental modifications, such as filing front teeth, most likely as a marker of identity.

These findings not only shed light on the intricate details of Viking dental practices but also hint at a complex system of oral hygiene and dental care. It's evident that dental modifications were not merely aesthetic; they were deeply intertwined with the identity and culture of the Vikings, marking them as a society with a refined understanding of oral health and personal expression.

In Conclusion

Dating back approximately a thousand years, the Viking-era teeth subjected to this comprehensive analysis have provided invaluable glimpses into the dental techniques and treatments prevalent among these seafaring communities. The level of dental skill exhibited by the Vikings challenges the notion that early societies lacked sophisticated medical knowledge, highlighting their innovative approaches to dental care and oral hygiene. Overall, the research into Viking dentistry practices redefines our understanding of this ancient society, emphasizing their remarkable achievements in oral care and the complex relationship between dental health, personal expression, and cultural identity.

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Author: Ayesha Khan, MD, MBA, is a registered physician, former research fellow, and enthusiastic blogger. With a wide range of articles published in renowned newspapers and scientific journals, she covers topics such as nutrition, wellness, supplements, medical research, and alternative medicine. As Vice President of Social Communications and Strategy at Renaissance, Ayesha brings her expertise and strategic mindset to drive impactful initiatives. Follow her blog for insightful content on healthcare advancements and empower yourself with knowledge.

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