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History of Oral Hygiene: Amazing Ways our Ancestors Stayed Healthy
September 4, 2017
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Our ancestors didn’t have toothpaste, electric toothbrushes or floss – but they still came up with some pretty ingenious ways to clean their teeth.

Looking back at how ancient humans stayed cavity-free (or at the very least, retained their teeth) gives us incredible perspective on how our societies have changed. There are a few different ways our ancestors managed to clean their teeth without modern tools – and an underlying shift in the human diet that made plaque control a lot simpler back then.

Keep reading to learn more about how your ancestors stayed healthy – and simple ways you can mimic some of their efforts today.

A Quick Oral Hygiene Timeline

Here’s a quick timeline that reflects what anthropologists and archaeologists have discovered about historical hygiene habits, combined with some more modern approaches and the development of now-universal recommendations:

  • 3000 BCE – Assyrian medical texts mention procedures intended to clean teeth. Toothpicks have also been discovered in Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) that date back to this period.
  • 1193-1164 BCE – The Roman equivalent of the Greek god of medicine and healing (Romain – Aesculapius, Greek – Asclepius) was believed to recommend that people clean their mouths and teeth.
  • 355 BCE – Hippocrates recommended that people use a dentifrice powder to clean their teeth. This powder. The Romans used it widely, making the powder from a variety of ground substances ranging from bones and horns to eggshells and oyster shells.
  • 936-1013 CE – Arabian surgeon wrote about the formation of tartar, and designed a set of scrapers to clean the teeth.
  • 1728 – Pierre Fauchard published The Surgical Dentist, which advocated against brushing and for cleaning the teeth with a toothpick or sponge and brandy mixed with water.
  • 1819 – Levi Speak Parmley recommended cleaning teeth with waxed silk as well as brushing.
  • 1845 – The American Journal of Dental Science recommends cleaning the teeth with floss silk 2-3 times a day.

How Did Ancient Humans Clean Their Teeth?

Prehistoric humans did not have toothbrushes, floss or toothpaste. But they still had fairly good teeth – and the secret lies in the diet.

Hunter-gatherers had surprisingly healthy teeth. But things changed dramatically once human populations began farming. Gum disease became widespread, and cavities started developing.

So, the earliest humans actually had a much easier time preventing plaque without even needing to actively clean their teeth. The foods they ate were more fibrous and cleaned the teeth as the ate, and there were few sugars and starches to contribute to plaque buildup.

Our diets have continued to shift in the grain-based direction ever since, and our collective oral health has taken a toll.

A study published in Nature Genetics investigated calcified plaque on ancient teeth from 34 prehistoric human skeletons. The researchers found that as diets changed over time, so did the composition of oral bacteria.

Disease-causing bacteria became stronger and more prevalent as the diet shifted from hunter-gatherer foods to farmed foods. The bad bacteria used carbohydrates to beat back more friendly bacteria in the mouth. During the Industrial Revolution, the introduction of processed flour and sugar made things even more damaging.

Today, we’re actually living our lives with problem bacteria filling our mouths. Our immune systems do their best to fight them back, but they often win out. Some experts recommend cutting out processed carbs – but that’s not a realistic (or necessarily healthy response). Here’s what you can do instead.

Eat These Foods to Help Fight Bad Bacteria

  • Fresh fruit and vegetables – These fibrous powerhouses act like natural toothbrushes, scrubbing away other food particles that might cause problems. Plus, they’re great for your entire body and help you maintain your waistline.
  • Sources of diverse nutrients – You want to get a wide variety of nutrients and minerals to help protect and strengthen your teeth and gums. Poor nutrition is a contributing factor to gum disease risk and potential tooth loss.
  • Plenty of water – Water is beneficial for your teeth, your gums, your brain… your body needs it in order for you to not only survive, but thrive. And chances are, you’re not drinking enough water on a daily basis. Try carrying around a reusable water bottle and making sure you finish it 2x (or more, depending on the size) each day.
  • Limit sugars and starches – We’re not recommending that you adopt a paleo diet, but we are mentioning that sugars and starches are the primary problems when it comes to tooth decay. Like we mentioned earlier, these interact with problematic oral bacteria and give rise to acids that erode enamel. Try to limit your consumption of sweet or starchy foods, choose whole grain when possible, and eat desserts right after dinner so that there’s still plenty of saliva present in your mouth.

Looking for health-boosting tips unique to your own teeth? Get in touch with our team to schedule your next dental exam.

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