Why Prehistoric Humans Had Better Teeth

A study published in March 2016 revealed that the condition of Neanderthals’ teeth is better than that of modern humans. It compares homo sapiens in today’s hunter-gatherer societies with Neanderthals who had the same diet – meat and plants.

Even more striking, a report by the British Broadcasting Service (BBC) cites two very counter-intuitive findings:

  • Rotten teeth only became a problem about 10,000 years ago, around the time of the advent of agriculture
  • The frequency of cavities among human hunter-gatherers is between 1 and 5 percent, compared with societies reliant on agriculture – including modern-day industrial societies – where the frequency of cavities is between 10 and 85 percent

How can these findings be explained? At first archaeologists conjectured that foods with an abundance of carbohydrates, essentially sugars, were to blame as these were new additions that came with the advent of agriculture. These theories were developed in the 1970s around the time when the link between sugar and cavities was being formulated.

However, this consensus is not uniform and since the 70s other scientists have pointed to an increased fertility rate as the cause, also brought about by the advent of agriculture.

An increase in fertility rate means women are having more babies. As it turns out, when a woman is pregnant her dental health can be negatively affected by changes in her body’s pH levels, hormones, and nutrients. These child-bearing women experiencing significantly more tooth decay could have been responsible for around a 50 percent increase in oral health decline.

Today it is assumed by many that some combination of an increased fertility rate and an increase in sugar consumption both led to a significant increase in problems with tooth decay.

Even if our ancestors did have better teeth than we do now, we can at least rest assured we don’t need to visit a dentist circa 12,000 BC.

Pre-Historic Dentistry

The next time you want to complain about the licensing process where you live, just be glad the tools you have to work with do not include flint blade scrapers, bone toothpicks, and hand-powered neolithic drills.

Archeologists in Italy recently unearthed a patient who had undergone dental work that was arguably successful in removing a significant portion of decayed dental tissue around 14,000 years ago. Other techniques of that era included scraping teeth with sharp implements to alleviate pain and the regular use of bone toothpicks.

Perhaps the earliest dental drill dates back to around 8,250 years ago in Pakistan. Making improvements from a fire-starting method, this technique was used on at least nine different patients unearthed in an ancient cemetery.

Think of your boy or girl scout days when you used a bow-like device to wrap a string around a dowel that would be rotated rapidly between two blocks of wood, with the ends creating enough friction to start a fire. Now take a similar device and instead of a wood block at one end substitute a tooth. This makes the early industrial foot-powered dentist drills look like space-age technology.