Tooth erosion is currently one of the most common dental problems in the world. If today soft drinks, fruit juices, wine and other foods and acidic beverages are usually to blame, how come our ancestors, who lived 2.5 million years ago, also suffered from dental erosion?
A recent study by Ian Towle, an anthropologist at John Moores University in Liverpool, England, reveals the teeth of one of our ancestors — Australopithecus africanus disappeared about 2.5 million years ago — from lesions remarkably similar to those caused by modern erosion.
Thus the first hominids and their predecessors suffered from dental problems surprisingly similar to ours, despite our very different diets. How is this possible? It seems that it is not our diet that is the culprit, but the way we brush our teeth.
If you brush your teeth too vigorously, you can weaken the tooth tissue, which over time allows acidic foods and beverages to create deep holes called non-carious cervical lesions (NCCL). Such lesions have been found on the fossilized teeth of a member of the species Australopithecus africanus.
“Given the size and position of the lesions, this individual probably had a toothache,” suggests Ian Towle in The Conversation. Did Australopithecus Africanus really brush his teeth? Probably yes. But not the way you might be thinking. He did it unwittingly by eating hard and fibrous foods.
For the lesions to form, this individual needed a diet rich in acidic foods. Instead of soft drinks, he fed on citrus fruits and sour vegetables. For example, tubers (potatoes and others) are difficult to eat raw, and some may be surprisingly acidic, so they may have been a cause of these lesions.
Cavities are now found in tooth fossils from almost all prehistoric hominid species studied. These lesions were often severe, so deep that they certainly caused serious toothaches. So the complex and severe dental problems that we often associate with a modern diet of processed foods and refined sugars also affected our ancestors – albeit less frequently. Further research will help learn about the nutrition and cultural practices of our distant parents.