Ancient chewing gum reveals poor oral health of mesolithic hunter-gatherers

A recent study published in Scientific Reports reveals intriguing insights into the oral health of a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer group that thrived in south-western Scandinavia around 10,000 years ago. Emrah Kırdök, Anders Götherström, and their research team delved into the genetic material preserved on three pieces of ancient birch tar discovered in Huseby Klev, Sweden, dating back to 9,890-9,540 years ago.

By sequencing the DNA from these tar samples, the scientists constructed profiles of microbial, plant, and animal species present. Remarkably, the microbial composition closely resembled that of the modern human mouth, ancient human dental plaque, and even a 6,000-year-old chewed birch tar sample. This strongly indicates that the birch tar was chewed by individuals from the Mesolithic era.

Photo from the excavation site Huseby Klev at the Swedish west coast. Credit: Bengt Nordquist

Of particular note was the elevated presence of bacteria linked to gum disease, including Treponema denticola, Streptococcus anginosus, and Slackia exigua, as well as those associated with tooth decay, like Streptococcus sobrinus and Parascardovia denticolens. Utilizing machine learning models, the researchers estimated a 70-80% likelihood that the hunter-gatherer group faced issues with gum disease.

The study posits that the intensified use of teeth for gripping, cutting, and tearing tasks in ancient hunter-gatherer societies may have heightened the risk of exposure to microbes causing gum disease. Beyond microbial DNA, the researchers identified sequences matching various plant and animal species, including hazelnut, apple, mistletoe, red fox, gray wolf, mallard, limpet, and brown trout. These findings hint at the diverse materials, possibly including food, furs, and bone tools, that the Mesolithic individuals might have chewed.

This research not only sheds light on the compromised oral health of Mesolithic Scandinavian hunter-gatherers but also provides valuable insights into their dietary habits, tool usage, and the surrounding environment.

Source: Nature Publishing Group

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