We’re always looking for ways to take shortcuts. Life is hectic – and brushing and flossing aren’t always your top priorities. What if you could find a way to get around them?
This is the kind of question that’s usually someone’s mind when they start wondering about the history of oral hygiene. It’s true – our ancestors didn’t take care of their teeth the way that we do today. But that’s not to say that they didn’t clean their teeth at all – and that’s not the only factor to consider when wondering about historical oral health.
We’ve pulled information from a few studies and compiled experts’ thoughts below. The next time your daughter or son asks why they have to brush their teeth, dazzle them with your knowledge of human oral hygiene from centuries back. Turns out our ancestors knew what they were doing!
How Did Humans Clean their Teeth 2,000 Years Ago?
Anthropologists and archaeologists have been interested in this question for some time, and conduct ongoing research. There isn’t really any one clear answer, as humans in different regions and different cultures found a variety of ways to clean their teeth.
A new study found that humans living in Sudan about 2,000 years ago were actually preventing cavities by eating a plant called the purple nutsedge. Today, purple nutsedge is an aggressive weed that we do everything possible to contain. But back then, it may have been the key to decay prevention. This is likely due to the weed having antibacterial properties.
Fewer than 1% of the teeth studied had any signs of tooth decay. Analysis of the plaque on these teeth showed that the group had been eating the tubers of the purple nutsedge. It’s unclear whether they were using the weed as food or specifically as medicine – but because it has a bitter taste, it’s likely the latter. This study is unique because it’s the first time a specific plant has been found to have prevented cavities among an ancient population. But other studies have found additional ways that our ancestors kept plaque in check.
Our Ancestors’ Toothbrushes
The first toothbrush was likely developed around 3000 BCE. This was a frayed twig developed by the Babylonians and the Egyptians. Other sources have found that around 1600 BCE, the Chinese created sticks from aromatic trees’ twigs to help freshen their breath.
What did humans do before that? Well, it’s actually important to take a look at the primary causes of cavities, rather than what humans did to fight decay. The human diet has changed radically over time, and the way we eat today has very little in common with our ancestors’ diets.
Early humans ate meals that were relatively low-carb and consisted mainly of meat. This is because farming had not yet been developed. Once humans did start farming, they ate more grain, which led to more acids being produced in the mouth. Early farmers tended to have more cavities than hunter-gatherers.
Eating Your Way to Healthier Teeth
We’re not promoting that you adapt an ancient diet or go the paleo route. But considering the ways ancient humans ate offers us some clues as to how we can eat and drink a little healthier.
What to avoid:
- Processed treats – These tend to contain more sugar, which interacts with bacteria in the mouth to create acids that erode the teeth. They also tend to contain fewer tooth-healthy nutrients than fresh foods.
- Sweets / soda – Carbonated beverages are acidic, no matter what flavoring they contain. And adding in the amount of sugar in soda makes these beverages far more harmful. Soda demineralizes the teeth and erodes enamel – as do other sweets. But soda is a bit scarier because it washes over your tooth surfaces, affecting a significant portion of your smile.
- Baked goods – Sugars and starches cause big problems in your mouth. Both interact with oral bacteria to give rise to acids that attack the enamel. So cakes, cupcakes and cookies should be consumed on a limited basis. This will not only be good for your teeth, but for your entire body.
What to embrace:
- Fibrous foods – Ancient humans ate mostly fibrous foods. These are both beneficial for digestion and helpful to the teeth – the fibers act as natural toothbrushes and scrub away food particles, bacteria and plaque from the teeth.
- A variety of nutrients – Your diet should be rich in a variety of nutrients and minerals. This will help you teeth and gums stay strong and equip your body to fight off infections.
Another huge but non-dietary factor to consider is tobacco use. Smoking stains teeth, heightens your risk of periodontal disease, and may also impact your risk of developing oral cancer. Tobacco is a danger to your teeth and to your whole body.
Looking for tips on your personal oral hygiene routine? Reach out today.