Prehistoric Dental Health: What We Can Learn From The Past

Have you ever wondered how our prehistoric ancestors dealt with dental issues? What do you do when you have a cavity and no dentist to fix it? You could always knock the tooth out—a la Tom Hanks in Cast Away—but this is hardly a good solution. The truth is, our ancestors didn’t have to worry about dental problems as much as we do. That may seem strange, but the reasons behind it are quite illuminating.

Diet in Prehistoric Dental Health

Archaeologists have been digging up human remains for centuries. They’ve noted how most of our prehistoric brethren have great sets of teeth. Better in many cases than ours. But there’s a significant difference (one among many) between us and them: diet.

Before and during the Neolithic Revolution, humans were primarily hunter-gatherers. Their diets consisted mostly of meat, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. With the onset of agriculture, grain was introduced on a large scale to our diet. As Alan Cooper, director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, says “As soon as you get to farming populations, you see this massive change. Huge amounts of gum disease. And cavities start cropping up.”

Agriculture and Cavities

Agriculture brought many societal benefits. Yet it also brought carbohydrates and sugar. Cavity-causing bacteria thrive on sugar, fermenting it into lactic acid. Once grain became central to our diet, dental problems truly emerged.

As our diet changed, so did the bacteria in our mouths. The disease causing bacteria adapted better than others and came to dominate. To make matters worse, the Industrial Revolution brought about processed flour and sugar. Civilization advanced, but so did bacteria.

Not all bacteria in our mouths are bad. The harmful ones, however, overshadow the good ones. This puts us in a constant state of disease. It’s an ongoing battle that doesn’t ever end unlike other immune responses.

Better Oral Health Through Diet

Dr. Cooper’s sees the solution to this problem not in oral hygiene, but by changing our diet. We can brush, floss, and mouthwash all we want, yet that only keeps the bacteria at bay. Basically he’s advocating a return to the hunter-gatherer diet. Or at the very least, a more balanced diet.

There’s already a movement that aims to do just that: the paleo diet. When you adopt this diet you may:

One must always be skeptical of cure all diets. Still, when it comes to oral health, the shift in our diet has proven to be the chief culprit for introducing tooth decay and gum disease. Without the adoption of agriculture, however, human civilization probably wouldn’t have advanced as it did.

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