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Tooth decay in man proven to be 15,000 years old

Multiple incidents of dental caries and other oral disease affect the upper teeth of these remains, between 14,000 and 15,000 years old, recovered from Grotte des Pigeons at Taforalt in Morocco.
Multiple incidents of dental caries and other oral disease affect the upper teeth of these remains, between 14,000 and 15,000 years old, recovered from Grotte des Pigeons at Taforalt in Morocco.
Image courtesy of Isabelle De Groote.

Tooth decay in humans has been proven to be at least 15,000 years old by Louise T. Humphrey from the Natural History Museum in London, England and colleagues from Britain, Germany, and Morocco in research that was published on Jan. 6, 2013, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers examined the skulls of 52 modern human hunter-gatherers recovered from Grotte des Pigeons in Taforalt, Morocco. Over 50 percent of the skulls demonstrated some degree of tooth decay in a population that lived in the area between 13,700 and 15,000 years ago.

The researchers found evidence that part of the Stone Age people’s diet included acorns and pine nuts. Both acorns and pine nuts contain fermentable carbohydrates. Bacteria that commonly live in the human mouth acted on the fermentable carbohydrates and produced the high level of tooth decay seen in these ancient humans. Similar levels of tooth decay still persist in modern man even in countries that have a high level of dental treatment available.

The researchers conclude that a more sedentary life may have developed earlier than is presently known based on the dietary evidence. The research challenges the common conclusion that high instances of dental decay arose in man after men began to develop an agricultural lifestyle.

The research is the oldest known evidence of tooth decay in hunter-gatherer peoples unearthed to date.