When we explore the history of our species, there are many methods that yield all kinds of information.
Everything from art painted on caves to ruins of prehistoric structures shed a little more light on the way our long-ago ancestors lived.
But one great source of information that may be a bit unexpected is teeth. Scientists can glean a surprising amount of knowledge just by studying the choppers of cavemen, ancient peoples, and even those who lived only a few hundred years ago.
Read on to find out just what we’ve learned…
1. Medieval Health
When we think of the Middle Ages, we tend to think of terrible personal hygiene practices that lead to deplorable health conditions. In most aspects, that’s absolutely accurate, but one place that they may have had us beat is oral health.
Not only did medieval folks take care to keep their mouth clean, teeth white, and breath fresh, they also experienced far less tooth decay than we do today. The reason? Sugar, pure and simple. At the time, the average diet included very little sugar.
It was rare at the time, therefore very expensive, so it was much more common to use natural sweeteners like fruit and honey.
In fact, their diet would have been one that modern dentists would heartily approve of – high in calcium from dairy and lots of vegetables. Archaeological data shows that this teeth-friendly diet resulted in just 20% of teeth showing decay, as opposed to a whopping 90% in 20th-century populations!
2. Dead Dentures
We go to great lengths and make unusual sacrifices to look our best… but would you be willing to have the teeth of a dead soldier in your mouth to achieve a perfect smile? For wealthy folks of the 18th century, it was a somewhat common practice. They may not have known where their human teeth dentures came from, but they probably didn’t ask too many questions, either.
Rachel Bairsto of the British Dental Association’s museum says that the upper class of the time were eating more and more sugar, resulting in lost teeth and the need for replacements.
Though some would be replaced with ivory dentures, it was much more desirable to get the real thing. The problem was that they were hard to come by.
One rather macabre solution was mining the mouths of dead soldiers who had died on the battlefield of Waterloo. After the teeth were yanked out with pliers, they would then be shaped and put together so they might pass as a full set from just one donor.
In the following century, advancements in dentistry made the practice obsolete, but before the technology was there, this grisly procedure was an option for those who were concerned about their appearance.
3. The Real Cause of a Crooked Smile
The next time you visit the zoo, steal a glance at the teeth of some of our primate relatives. What you’ll notice is that their pearly whites are as straight and aligned as a kid who just got his braces off.
Our primitive ancestors also had these enviable smiles.
So why are so many of us modern humans born with crooked smiles that require orthodontics? Well, the answer lies in our food. Way back when, before cooking, forks and knives, our teeth had to do a lot more heavy lifting to break down our food.
Humans used to have larger jaws that would accommodate extra molars (now known as wisdom teeth), but as our lifestyle evolved, so did our jaws. They got smaller and smaller over time. But those molars still grow in for many of us, and when they do, they push our other teeth together, resulting in the common imperfect smile.
4. Roman Ruins
Even though the Ancient Romans lived without much of what we consider to be modern science, they were a lot more advanced than you may think. A 1987 discovery of some 86 teeth in the Roman Forum yielded a wealth of interesting information to bioarcheologists.
According to Roman expert, Michael Becker, these teeth are evidence of the fact that the ancient people had skilled dentists who could provide at least enough care to remove teeth and address pain. All of the 86 teeth found had cavities and nearly all came from adults, which shows a couple of interesting things.
First, it’s clear from the nature of the cavities that the Roman diet included soft, sugary foods that would tend to get stuck between teeth, causing cavities and necessitating removal.
Also, the condition of the teeth and surviving documents show that these ancient dentists were actually pretty good at what they did.
You might imagine a sort of primitive torture chamber where teeth removal took place in Caesar’s era, but it’s clear from these artifacts that even thousands of years ago, good dentistry was a priority.
You probably already knew that your dentist can tell a great deal about your health by merely taking a look inside your mouth. But now you also know that teeth reveal fascinating information about our shared history as a species.
About the Author: Dr. Kimberly Dyoco is a Chicago dentist who practices both general and cosmetic dentistry at One Mag Smile, the practice she founded in the heart of the city. In addition to providing excellent care for her patients, Dr. Dyoco also enjoys guest blogging for a variety of online health publications. For more info, visit www.1Magsmile.com.
Featured image courtesy of Flickr/Daniela Vladimirova