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Ancient Romans Had Less Gum Disease Than We Do

A recent study of 303 ancient Roman skulls has uncovered a 5% rate of periodontitis (moderate to severe gum disease)—significantly lower than the British rate of 15 to 30%, and never mind the U.S. rate of 38.5%. Ancient Romans didn’t brush, floss, drink fluoridated water, or go to the dentist. So what gives?

Well, to begin with, let’s not sell ancient Roman dental hygiene short. Ancient Romans may not have had Invisalign and Crest Whitening Strips, but they did have access to chewing sticks, toothpicks, rags, mouthwash, and even toothpaste (urine being a primary ingredient, as the ammonia therein could be used to whiten teeth).

Ancient Roman spoons and toothpicks. Photo: © 2010 Linda Spashett. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Ancient Roman spoons and toothpicks. Photo: © 2010 Linda Spashett. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

And ancient Romans had another advantage: no access to tobacco. As the study’s co-author points out:

Theya Molleson … from the Natural History Museum said: “This study shows a major deterioration in oral health between Roman times and modern England. By underlining the probable role of smoking, especially in determining the susceptibility to progressive periodontitis in modern populations, there is a real sign that the disease can be avoided. As smoking declines in the population we should see a decline in the prevalence of the disease.”

This makes sense, because smoking is undeniably a huge risk factor for periodontitis. And it might also help explain why prehistoric humans also had pretty impressive choppers relative to ours, all things considered, despite not benefitting from ancient Roman dental care habits.

But it’s not all bad news for contemporary teeth. While most reports of the British study highlight the claim that ancient Romans “had better teeth” than contemporary Britons, that’s not entirely true—ancient Roman teeth were crooked and had significantly more wear and tear (as you might expect), and they were also more prone to abscesses, which were far more likely to prove fatal in the pre-antibiotics era. All told, I’m betting the owners of those 303 skulls would have much rather had the gum disease.

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Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.
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