Gum disease, also known as periodontitis, is the result of chronic inflammatory response to the build-up of dental plaque. Whilst a substantial number of the population lives with mild gum disease, factors including tobacco smoking or medical conditions like diabetes can cause more severe chronic periodontitis, which can result in the loss of teeth.
The study, published in the British Dental Journal, examined 303 skulls from a Romano-British burial ground in Poundbury, Dorset for evidence of dental disease. Only 5% of skulls displayed signs of moderate to severe gum disease, compared to today’s population of approximately 15-30% of adults suffering from chronic progressive periodontitis.
However, lots of the Roman skulls, which form part of the collections in the Palaeontology department of the Natural History Museum, displayed evidence of infections and abscesses, and half had caries (tooth decay). The Pundbury population also showed extensive tooth wear from a young age, as is to be expected from a diet containing a large amount of rich grains and cereals at the time.
The Poundbury cemetery community, genetically similar to modern European populations, was comprised of countryside dwellers as well as a Romanised urban population. This was a non-smoking population and probably had very low levels of diabetes mellitus, two factors known to greatly increase the chance of gum disease in modern populations. Among the people who survived infancy, childhood illnesses and malnutrition into adulthood, the peak age at death appears to have been in their 40s. Infectious diseases are believed to have been a common cause of death at that time.
Professor Francis Hughes from the Dental Institute at King’s College London and lead author of the study said: “We were very struck by the finding that severe gum disease appeared to be much less common in the Roman British population than in modern humans, despite the fact that they did not use toothbrushes or visit dentists as we do today. Gum disease has been found in our ancestors, including in mummified remains in Egypt, and was alluded to in writings by the Babylonians, Assyrians and Sumerians as well as the early Chinese.”
Theya Molleson, co-author of the study 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.”
Contributing Source: King’s College London
Header Image Source: WikiPedia
The findings remind us “early human populations extensively explored the planet,” says Anna-Sapfo Malaspinas from the Natural History Museum of Denmark’s Centre for GeoGenetics. “Textbook versions of human colonisation events – the peopling of the Americas, for example – need to be re-evaluated utilising genomic data.”
On that note, a second articles will feature in the same issue of Current Biology by Malaspinas along with Eske Willerslev and their colleagues examined two human skulls representing the indigenous “Botocudos” of Brazil to discover their genomic ancestry is Polynesian, with no detectable Native American component at all.
Archaeological evidence had implied that 30 to 100 Polynesian men, women and children first landed on Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, in approximately AD 1200, arriving in two or more doubled-hulled canoes. After settling on the isolated island, the Rapanui built their famous stone platforms and over 900 statues, some weighing as much as 82 tons.
While it may have taken weeks for Polynesians to reach the closest nearby islands, there are suggestions of contact with the larger world. For example, there is evidence to support the presence of crops native to the Americas in Polynesia, including the Andean sweet potato, well before the first reported European contact.
Genome-wide analysis of 27 native Rapanui now confirms significant contact between the island people and Native Americans sometime between about AD 1300 and AD 1500, 19 to 23 generations ago. The Rapanui population started mixing with Europeans much later, in the middle of the 19th century. The ancestry of the Rapanui today is 76% Polynesian, 8% Native American, and 16% European.
The novel evidence about the Rapanui implies one of two scenarios: either Native Americans sailed to Rapa Nui or Polynesians sailed to the Americas and back. The researchers believe it is more likely that the Rapanui successfully made the trip back and forth, given simulations proposed in previous studies demonstrating that “All sailing voyages heading intentionally east from Rapa Nui would always reach the Americas, with a trip lasting from two weeks to approximately two months.” On the other hand, the trip from the Americas to Rapa Nui is much more difficult, which would have made it likely to fail or miss the island completely. From the Americas, Rapa Nui is a small target, which may also be the reason it took Europeans so long to find it.
Contributing Source: Cell Press
Header Image Source: Flickr
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