Cavities: A Look Back

Researchers have recently published a study that links many of the oral health complications suffered by humans today to similar ones experienced by ancient humans. Researchers studied the skeletons of ancient humans present during the Pleistocene age. The number of cavities present in these ancient humans is very comparable to the number present in the average modern adult mouth.

What does this discovery say about our diets, mouths and oral health?

Cavities are infectious and can cause tooth decay and major discomfort. It would have been in the best interest of ancient humans, just as it is in our interest today, to never experience a single cavity. They make eating and chewing difficult and painful. They cause the teeth to be vulnerable to wear. In the extreme case that they cause actual tooth loss, a person’s ability to break down nutrients is completely hindered! Because this is how we see cavities, we also see their occurrence as a result of us having done something wrong. If we cared for our teeth without any error and had a diet that was rich in the nutrients we need, we like to think that we’d never have to worry about cavities. Nowadays cavities are most commonly blamed on poor dental hygiene and a diet rich in sugars and refined foods.

Did these ancient humans suffer cavities for the same reasons?

No, which is why these findings are so interesting! While there are records and artifacts that date dental hygiene very far back, the practice wasn’t widely followed. There’s a big chance these ancient humans weren’t concerned at all with getting their twice-a-day-for-two-minutes in. So at least a portion of the reason they were experiencing cavities had to do with poor oral health. But what about their diets? Researchers have decided that it was likely that the diet of these ancient humans consisted of a lot of fermentable carbohydrates. They also believe that this diet was a fairly new one, following the transition from hunting and gathering. The earliest forms of food production are linked with a change in the composition of oral microbes. Streptococcus mutans, the microbe most commonly linked with cavities, is thought to have originally resulted from this shift.

So what exactly are we saying?

We’re saying there existed a time when dental cavities either did not exist at all in ancient humans (or were very rare). However because of the shift in nutrient acquisition to food production (as opposed to hunting and gathering) and the introduction of fermentable carbohydrates into the diet of ancient humans, a change in oral microbes occurred that resulted in the microbe now most commonly responsible for cavities!

Don’t blame your cavities on your dental hygiene habits or those two sodas you had today! Blame your ancestors (the great, great, great ones), and their attempts to provide themselves with viable sources of nutrition! After you’ve done that remember to brush twice a day for two minutes and limit your sugar intake.

Call Dr. Bosse and have yourself checked for cavities today!