Diet and dental disease

Molars in the jaw of an older middle-aged individual from the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük showing large dental caries lesions

Using tooth wear and decay patterns in the investigation of dietary change

Tooth decay is directly related to carbohydrate consumption and the two largest changes in dental health worldwide have been the adoption of agriculture and the rise of sugar consumption in the greatly expanding cities of the 19th century. This is strongly reflected in human remains from archaeological sites.

Lower dentition of middle-aged Chiribaya man from the Osmore Valley in southern Peru (AD 1000-1400) showing large lesions of dental caries

Up until the rise of cultivated, starch-rich crops, dental caries (decay) was extremely rare. Amongst early agriculturalists, it was more frequent but was in particular a disease of the very worn teeth of older people. In cities after the industrial revolution a softer diet mean much less wear and the rise of sugar caused caries rates to soar. Many more children and younger adults started to show the condition which took on a character much more like that of the 20th century.

These changes can be found in many parts of the world and make the rate and pattern of dental caries, together with tooth wear, a very useful tool for investigating dietary change. This project involves collaborations in Peru, Turkey and Portugal.

Related outputs

  • Wasterlain, S.N., Hillson, S. & Cunha, E. (2009). Dental caries in a Portuguese identified skeletal sample from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 140, pp. 64-79.
  • Wasterlain, S.N., Cunha, E. & Hillson, S. EarlyView published online. Periodontal disease in a Portuguese identified skeletal sample from the late nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
  • Hillson, S., Kolp-Godoy Allende, M & Guillen, S (2009) Diet, culture change, dental disease and tooth wear in prehistoric southern Peru. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, pp. 150-151. Conference presentation.
  • Hillson, S.W. (2007). The current state of dental decay. In: Irish, J.D. & Nelson, G. (Eds), Technique and Application in Dental Anthropology. Cambridge Studies in Biological and Evolutionary Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 111-136.
  • Trinkaus, E., Hillson, S.W., Franciscus, R.G. & Holliday, T.W. (2005). Skeletal and dental paleopathology. In: Trinkaus, E. & Svoboda, J. (Eds), Early Modern Human evolution in Central Europe. Human Evolution Series. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 419-458.
  • Hillson, S.W. (2004). Mummies and health in the ancient Ilo valley. Archaeology International, 7 , pp. 44-47.

Project Leader:

Project Partners:

  • Basak Boz, Trakya University, Edirne, Turkey
  • Clark S. Larsen, Ohio State University
  • Çatalhöyük Project
  • Sonia Guillen, Centro Mallqui, Peru
  • Maria Kolp-Godoy, Zürich University
  • Sofia Wasterlain, Coimbra University, Portugal


Further information:

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