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Acci-dental history

I’m a little down-in-the-mouth at the moment. A trip to the dentist has proved very painful: to my cheque book as much as anything. But no experience is ever wasted, and my dentist’s enthusings on the enduring mineral nature of teeth prompted me to do some historical extractions of my own. 

Dental extractions

Teeth are an archeologist’s dream. They’re the hardest component of the human body, and they’re made almost entirely from minerals, which makes them extremely durable. They can survive in the ground long after any accompanying bones might have dissappeared. 

But there’s another thing that makes them valuable to the archeologist. Unlike bones, the mineral part of a tooth  doesn’t regenerate  and replace its tissue during the life of its owner. This means that teeth can be a record of a life’s history, much like the rings of a tree can show changes in the weather during its life. How archaeologists piece together the possibilities of ancient human life from the most subtle toothy clues is fascinating. They put Poirot and Vera to shame. 

“Oh Nandy”

Neanderthal skull – with teeth.

And it’s not just  human teeth that interest archaeologists. Take, for example, “Nandy’s” teeth. Nandy was  named as such by archaeologist Neil Oliver, in his book “Wisdom of the Ancients. Life Lessons from our Distant Past”. Well worth a read. Nandy was a neanderthal male, whose remains were found in modern Kurdistan, and who had died at around 40 years of age. His teeth had been worn down to stumps. 

But the archaeologists confirmed, through analysis of the wear patterns, that it was not through eating indigestible rough food. Nandy’s teeth were worn down through chewing tough animal hides, probably to make  clothing or tent-like shelters.

Neanderthal relations

Rebecca Wragg Sykes also writes on neanderthals,  in her book “Kindred”, (amongst my many Christmas reads, thanking several you-know-who’s). She describes contrasting stress patterns on the teeth of female neanderthals. The patterns suggest that animal hides must have been held between their teeth and then pulled through repetitively, to make them more supple. Other neanderthal teeth display vertical grooves, which suggest the enthusiastic plying of a toothpick; surely a must-have, what with all that prime-cut meat.

Have you heard about a dental condition called taurodontism? It’s where the molars at the back of the gums have cusps, or little bumps around the rim,  which are smooth and fused, rather than bumpy and separated. It’s not very common, but around 1 in 50 of us have the condition.

Well, it was a very common condition in neanderthals, judging from their remains. So, smooth back teeth could very well be a physical manifestation of  neanderthal DNA – if you’re of non-African ethnicity, you’ll have around 3 percent of neanderthal DNA in your genes, smooth teeth or not. People of African ethnicity don’t carry neanderthal genes – neanderthals emerged after the great journey of hominids out of Africa.

You are what you eat

Other dental clues help us guess the neanderthal diet. They didn’t have the advantages we have of a dental hygienist with a water-pick, and so they suffered from a gradual build-up of calculus on their teeth. And the analysis of the calculus from several individuals proved very interesting. There were remains of lots of different species of grasses in the calculus, which indicates active and widespread foraging. Remains of water-lily roots suggest a familiarity with foraging in water. There was evidence of having eaten boiled starches – so, confirming their use of  fire. And in the calculus of one particular female, whose remains were found in what is now Belgium, archeologists found remnants of meat from wild sheep and rhinos. That’s quite a varied diet, and shows perhaps what opportunistic foragers and hunters Nandy and his folk were.

What’s even more exciting are the secrets revealed by the analysis of the isotopes in dental remains. This is not a science blog, so to keep things simple, think of an isotope as a variant of an atom. (As an example, an isotope of hydrogen has the same number of protons as all other hydrogen isotopes, but a differing number of neutrons from the others. That’s enough science for now…). 

Science and stuff

As I wrote earlier, the stuff in teeth doesn’t regenerate and change over time; newer material just accumulates.  So, the analysis of the isotopes in dental remains can give clues about the ongoing diets of their owners, and from that, clues about their whereabouts and their diets. This allows a marvellous in-depth  picture of ancient lives.

Analysis of lead isotopes is revealing: lead permeates the water we drink, whose isotopes  then lodge in our teeth. Those of one particular neanderthal show that they were born in the spring, and then moved at around 10 weeks old to a different location – probably a summer camp. 

Another individual spent a fortnight as a toddler in a high-lead region, and then a further seven months in an area with medium lead in the water, before moving on to a lower lead environment. What strong, compelling  evidence for a nomadic existence!  Another’s teeth showed that, as a baby, they had been breast-fed up to around 7 months old, which then abruptly ceased. Perhaps their mother died?

Amesbury Archer

The skeleton and grave-goods of the Amesbury archer


And what about humans? Scientists make the same insight into ancient lives through dental analysis. Take for example, the famous “Amesbury Archer”, whose remains were unearthed in an ancient grave in Wiltshire. He was a Bronze age male, who lived around 2,300 BC. He was named as such, not because a bow was found with him, but because he was wearing wrist guards to protect against the recoil of a bowstring, and next to his body were 16 flint arrowheads. His grave was filled with other fascinating artefacts to equip him for the afterlife.

The poor man had the remains of an abscess in his lower left molar, which must have been very painful. But the isotope analysis was even more revealing. He was not born in this country – he grew up around the Alps, in central Europe. What caused him to be buried, with a high degree of ceremony, judging by all the grave goods found in his burial, such a long way from the land of his birth?

Maldon Teeth

Note the mottling, caused by excess fluoride – “Maldon teeth”.

Let’s now hop from the Bronze age to 1920s Maldon, in Essex. Dentists noticed that many patients they saw had mottled front teeth, but also a very low incidence of tooth decay. A bit of scholarly dental research, and some rooting around, unearthed the reason. Prior to the 1800s, Maldon’s water source was from springs and wells, but as the population increased, more water was needed and so deep boreholes were drilled to the reservoirs of water below. 

The drills penetrated the top layer of London clay, through a middle layer of what’s called Thanet sand, into the bottom chalk layer, to extract the water. And Thanet sand contains very high levels of – fluoride. Which causes mottling in calcium, and as we know, is also a great preventative of tooth decay. 

It was this research that eventually led to the introduction of fluoride to UK water supplies, and to our toothpastes. Apparently, the phenomenon of Maldon teeth is world-renowned, and still appears in medical and dental textbooks. Not that I’ve noticed when there of any mottling on the teeth of passing Maldon residents, but perhaps they don’t smile much.

Under your pillow

Now to finish with a jaunt into toothy folklore. I’m sure when young, we all placed our baby teeth under the pillow, in the hope that the tooth fairy would visit in the night, take the tooth and leave a coin in repayment. (When I was a child the going rate was an old sixpence, but I hear that inflationary pressures have made the current rate rather higher).  The tooth fairy is very much a northern European tradition. There’s a collection of old Norse poems, called the Edda, whose origins are over a thousand years old. In it, the poems mention a tand-fe, which translates as a tooth fee, which was paid when a child lost their first tooth.

Why would northern folk want to pay a fee for baby teeth? Because they viewed them as a valuable commodity. Warriors believed that baby teeth were protective in battle, and warded off injury and death. They wore teeth woven into necklaces, before going to fight.

This tradition continued alongside another, where in darker times, and probably in  periods of collective paranoia, shed baby teeth were either buried or burned. This was to prevent their capture by witches, who might then use them in charms and spells.

Little rats

But, back to less paranoid times. In mediterranean countries it’s not a fairy that collects the teeth from under your pillow, but a mouse or rat.  And in Spanish-speaking cultures, Ratoncito Pérez, loosely translated as little rat Peter, comes and takes your tooth from under the pillow and leaves a fee. In some South American countries there’s a lovely fusion, with el Raton Peréz sharing the job with el Ratón de los Dientes – otherwise known as the Tooth mouse.

In France, baby teeth are again collected by the little tooth mouse – la petite souris.

Mickey Mouse

And in Italy, it’s a mixture. Sometimes the teeth are collected by la fatina dei denti – the tooth fairy. But other times, it’s the tooth mouse that visits – a mouse called Topolino. Some of you may recognise that name – it’s  used in Disney  films as the Italian name for our old friend, Mickey Mouse.  The name Topolino is probably a corruption of Sant’ Apollonia.


Apollonia, and her tooth

She is charged with the task of collecting baby teeth in some parts of Italy. You can see why, when you view mediaeval images of the saint. Her martyrdom involved having all her teeth pulled out. One of those teeth was reputedly recovered, and is displayed as a relic, at the cathedral in Porto, Portugal. Appropriately enough, she is the patron saint of dentists.

And  travelling east, we find neither mice nor fairies. In many middle and far eastern countries , baby teeth from the lower jaw are thrown up into the air, or onto the roof, to encourage the new teeth to grow upwards and straight. Those from the upper jaw are thrown down onto the ground, again to encourage straight growth in the right direction. No mention of tand-fe, I’m afraid.

Hiding in plain sight

You’re carrying all your ancestral history around with you, in your DNA. Your blood and bones and organs give a snapshot of what’s going on in your body right now. But your teeth – that’s where you carry the history of the incidents from your life history- where you were born, where you grew up, where you moved to, what you ate, what you drank. Imagine what an archaeologist would make of you and your life, when finding your dental remains in a few thousand years. That’s living history. 

Sant’ Apollonia’s tooth? Relic from Porto Cathedral.

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