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Research sheds light on caries history

Authors report earliest evidence of high caries infections

Researchers reported in January that ancient humans developed cavities, toothaches and swollen gums—suffering the same oral maladies that modern humans face.

Examining adult skeletons of hunter-gatherers in the Pleistocene age in North Africa (from some 15,000 to 13,700 years ago), researcher Louise Humphrey of the Natural History Museum in London and her colleagues found that a diet that included acorns and pine nuts led to dental disease.

Reporting online Jan. 6 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers found early evidence linking a high prevalence of caries to a reliance on highly cariogenic wild plant foods.

They noted an "exceptionally high prevalence of caries" (51.2 percent of adult teeth), "comparable to modern industrialized populations with a diet high in refined sugars and processed cereals."

This appears to be the earliest evidence of high caries infections found by archeologists, the report said. The researchers propose that eating plants that were high in fermentable carbohydrates caused an early shift toward disease-associated oral microbes.

They were able to systematically harvest and process wild food like acorns and pine nuts, which in turn led to a more sedentary lifestyle than previously recognized for this era.

"The transition from hunting and gathering to food production is associated with a change in the composition of the oral microbiota and broadly coincides with the estimated timing of a demographic expansion in Streptococcus mutans, a causative agent of human dental caries. Here we present evidence linking a high prevalence of caries to reliance on highly cariogenic wild plant foods in Pleistocene hunter-gatherers from North Africa, predating other high caries populations and the first signs of food production by several thousand years," the researches say in the abstract of their article.