Ötzi the Iceman, the world’s oldest wet mummy, may have had many things in life, but a dazzling smile and fresh breath were not among them. A team of researchers from the Centre for Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich announced that Otzi’s oral hygiene left a lot to be desired, to put it mildly. The 5,000-year-old mummy’s mouth is filled with cavities, a broken tooth, and a bad case of gum disease—problems that still plague people today.
The Secrets of the Iceman
Discovered in 1991, Ötzi’s body was found in a melting glacier high in the Alps. Scientists believed he lived around 3300 B.C., making him one of the world’s oldest and best-preserved mummies. His remains have been studied extensively since then and have given us a window into life nearly 5,000 years ago. We now know what he looked like (bearded and tattooed), what his last meal was (goat meat and bread), and how he died (murder).
Look Ma! Lotsa Cavities!
Now we also know that Otzi didn’t clean his teeth and probably had bad breath. Led by Professor Frank Rühli, the team of scientists closely examined Otzi’s teeth and found evidence of gum disease (periodontitis), tooth decay, cavities, and a trauma to one of his front teeth (probably cause by an accident).
Dentist Roger Seiler from the Centre for Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich used computer tomography to analyze Otzi’s teeth and gums and give insight into the Neolithic mouth. “The loss of the periodontium has always been a very common disease, as the discovery of Stone Age skulls and the examination of Egyptian mummies has shown. Ötzi allows us an especially good insight into such an early stage of this disease,” Seiler explains.
The 3-D Scans reveal the mess that was Otzi’s mouth, especially around his back teeth. The gum tissue surrounding the rear molars had retreated almost to the tip of the root. The tooth decay is significant because it shows how starchy foods and the agriculture that created them were a part of Otzi’s regular diet. The team attributes his cavities to eating more breads and cereals.
Tooth and Consequences
The research team is fairly confident that while regular brushing and flossing was not a part of Otzi’s daily regimen, his abrasive diet may have helped keep his teeth clean. Contaminants and debris from the stones used to grind flour often worked their way into bread and porridge that were part of his diet. These would aid in the process of self-cleaning, but they also wore down the teeth. In fact, one of Otzi’s molars has damage consistent with biting down on a small stone.
Otzi’s body continues to astound scientists with all the secrets it’s revealed. While this latest finding gives us more insight into what life was like for Copper Age people, it also reminds us that something as simple as brushing one’s teeth can make life a lot more pleasant.