Vikings suffered from painful dental issues, study finds

Viking inhabitants in Sweden grappled with painful dental problems and, on occasion, sought remedies, as outlined in a study unveiled on December 13, 2023, in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Carolina Bertilsson from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, and her collaborators.

Back in 2005, excavations near Varnhem, Sweden brought to light the remnants of a Christian church, alongside a graveyard featuring thousands of Viking graves dating back to the 10th to 12th century AD. Bertilsson and her team conducted clinical and radiographical assessments of the dental conditions of individuals from this site, meticulously examining over 2,300 teeth from 171 subjects.

Over 60% of the adult subjects scrutinized exhibited signs of dental caries (tooth decay), predominantly affecting the root surface. Curiously, none of the juvenile individuals displayed signs of caries. The study also identified other dental pathologies, including tooth infections and signs of teeth loss prior to death. Some individuals suffered from severe caries leading to tooth pain, with a few instances of intentional tooth abrasion aimed at alleviating this discomfort. Additionally, evidence of tooth picking, presumably for food particle removal, was observed on certain teeth.

While the prevalence of dental caries in this Viking population aligned with that seen in other contemporary European groups, the authors caution that nearly a quarter of the Varnhem individuals’ teeth seem to have been lost either before or after death, potentially skewing the findings.

Interestingly, the study noted a decrease in the prevalence of caries with advancing age among adults, an unexpected outcome attributed to increased tooth loss in older individuals, resulting in the absence of the most decayed teeth. These findings offer valuable insights into the lives of Vikings grappling with untreated dental issues, showcasing their attempts at remedies and shedding light on the pathology of untreated dental conditions.

The authors emphasized, “Within a Swedish Viking community, approximately half of the individuals grappled with dental caries. The Vikings engaged in various dental practices, including tooth filing, tooth picking, and other attempts to address dental infections.”

Source: Public Library of Science

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