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Scientists Use Ancient Dental Calculus to Learn about the Past

Plaque may be bad for your teeth, but it also makes an excellent time capsule, as scientists recently learned while studying the dental calculus (fossilized plaque) of skeletons thought to be about 1,000 years old. The findings could provide clues into the origins of gum disease and help inform modern treatments.

‘A Microbial Pompeii’

One researcher called the dental calculus “a microbial Pompeii.” Much like the ancient Roman city that was buried by and preserved under lava and ash during the Mount Vesuvius eruption of A.D. 79, dental plaque preserves traces of bacteria and food particles.

An international team of scientists studied dental calculus from the skeletons of four people found at a site in Dalheim, Germany, and believed to have lived circa A.D. 1100. Unlike bone, which loses a significant amount of its molecular structure when buried, dental plaque enters the soil in a relatively stable state, which allows it to preserve biomolecules as the calculus slowly forms.

Researchers’ findings, which were published in the journal Nature Genetics, demonstrated that ancient humans suffered from periodontal disease that was caused by the same bacteria as it is today, despite monumental changes in human diet and hygiene. The calculus also allowed scientists to identify dietary components, such as vegetables, that otherwise leave little or no trace in the archaeological record.

Gum Disease: Then and Now

The ancient skeletons showed the significant presence of plaque and signs of periodontal disease, and the microbes found in the dental calculus were the same associated with those found in the mouths of modern people who have gum disease.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half of Americans ages 30 and older have some form of periodontal disease. In addition to causing progressive oral health problems, the untreated periodontal disease is also associated with systemic health problems including cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes.

Gum disease, though common in humans and domestic animals, rarely develops in wild animals, including non-human primates. Researchers believe additional study into ancient dental calculus can help us understand the evolution of the oral microbiome in relation to changes in diet, lifestyle, medicine and the environment, as well as pave the way for future preventive measures and treatment.

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