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Tooth Decay: An Ancient Disease
January 16, 2014

By Nancy Volkers
InteliHealth News Service

INTELIHEALTH - Tooth decay existed long before candy, soda and starchy snacks, finds a new study.

Archaeologists from the United Kingdom, Morocco and Germany did the research. They studied human remains found at Grotte de Pigeons, or "Cave of the Pigeons," in Morocco.

The 52 people whose bones were found there lived between 15,000 and 13,700 years ago. This was before the age of farming. Forty-nine of them – 94% -- had tooth decay.

Decay affected about one-third of the younger adults' teeth and more than half of the older adults' teeth. The researchers also found that many adults had missing teeth. Existing teeth were severely worn.

Evidence suggests that the Grotte de Pigeons people ate large amounts of acorns and pine nuts. They may have gathered and stored them for eating throughout the winter. Acorns are particularly high in carbohydrates. Storing acorns can increase their sugar content.

The scientists also found evidence that the acorns may have been cooked into a sticky mash. This could cause bits of food to remain between teeth after eating.

The researchers noted that in 90% of adults, the upper front teeth had been pulled out on purpose. This practice was common among people in this area at the time, but experts do not know why it was done. Once these teeth were pulled, the bone underneath would begin to weaken. Chewing would become more difficult.

Until now, the spread of tooth decay has been linked with the rise of farming, which occurred about 10,000 years ago. Many plant foods are high in carbohydrates. Experts believe that when people began eating a steady diet of these plant foods, it promoted the growth and spread of bacteria that cause tooth decay. But the Grotte de Pigeons people pre-date the rise of farming by up to 5,000 years.

The study appears in the January 7 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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