Tuesday, 4 June 2013

A song of ice and teeth...

Around 5000 years ago, a middle-aged man died in a mountain pass located in what was to become the border between Austria and Italy. He was quickly buried by ice and remained there until he was discovered in 1991. Initially thought to be the remains of a deceased mountaineer, he soon became known as Europe's earliest natural mummy, christened 'Ötzi' by his discovers.

'ice to meet you. Ötzi the 'Ice Man' currently resides at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, Italy
Although the remains of this remarkably well-preserved Neolithic man have been scanned, tested and analysed regularly since his discovery, it is only recently that his mouth has been systematically assessed.

University of Zurich researchers have looked at high resolution 3-D scans of the 'Ice Man' and the results suggest that problems with his dental health may have added to his already long list of ailments (poor Ötzi had broken ribs, arthritis, parasitic worms, gall bladder stones and had probably died having taken an arrow to the shoulder.)

Iceman Ötzi had bad teeth
CT scan of Otzi. Note how flat the tooth line is - a sure sign of dental wear.
Photo courtesy of the University of Zurich.

His teeth were extremely worn down, from a tough and gritty diet. Dental wear isn't something a lot of modern populations have to contend with - but Ötzi had lost about two-thirds of the height of most of his teeth. This wasn't the only thing wearing him down* though. His tough diet had also contributed to some tooth chipping, caused by small stones in his food, a 'dietary accident' according to the researchers.

Ötzi was found to have had at least two cavities, one of which was so extensive it had penetrated the nerve containing pulp cavity within the tooth. The team from Zurich also noted a great deal of change and loss to the bone around the tooth sockets, indicating a moderate to severe level of periodontal (gum) disease.

It is not unusual to find these kind of dental conditions in such an individual. Tooth-brushing isn't thought to have been happened much in Europe in the stone age and although Ötzi was found with numerous tools and equipment - a toothbrush was, unsurprisingly, not found amongst his belongings.

* Sorry. I couldn't resist.

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