Decaying civilization? Study finds Britons have worse teeth than their Roman-era ancestors
The eight page study looked at 303 skulls at the Natural History Museum, dating back from 200 to 400 AD and found that only 5 percent had signs of severe or moderate gum disease, known as periodontitis to dentists, compared to 15 to 20 percent of adults in Britain today.
Even the lead author of the study, Professor Francis Hughes, said the results were surprising.
“We were very struck by the finding that severe gum disease appeared to be much less common in the Roman British population than in modern humans, despite the fact that they did not use toothbrushes or visit dentists as we do today,” said Hughes.
The skulls were dug up at a Roman burial ground in Poundbury, Dorset, although Hughes stressed that it has been found in human remains in various places round the world prior to this study.
“Gum disease has been found in our ancestors, including in mummified remains in Egypt, and was alluded to in writings by the Babylonians, Assyrians and Sumerians as well as the early Chinese,” he added.
Although many people live with mild gum disease these days, smoking and other medical conditions like diabetes can trigger chronic periodontitis, which in turn leads to tooth decay, and tooth loss.
The findings were backed up by the study’s co-author Theya Molleson, from the Natural History Museum.
“This study shows a major deterioration in oral health between Roman times and modern England. By underlining the probable role of smoking, there is a real sign that the disease can be avoided. As smoking declines in the population we should see a decline in the prevalence of the disease,” she said.
But although the skulls showed a low rate of gum disease, half of them had signs of tooth decay, and many of them showed signs of other infections and abscesses.
Many of the teeth were also severely worn down from an early age, as the mainstay of diet in Roman times was meat, cereals and coarse grains.