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What Fossilised Teeth Can Tell Us About Disease

History can teach us an enormous amount. Through written and verbal sources, we have pieced together what most likely happened to Ancient Civilisations – what their cities were like, what their wars were fought over and what they believed in. Archaeology is the branch of Science focused on the study of human history using artifacts and physical remains. Most people link it to the digging up of fossilised bones and studying those bones. Christina Warinner takes this further by studying the microbial world found within these remains, the world of the micro-organism like bacteria.

Where does Christina Warinner find this evidence? In the fossilised plaque on ancient teeth. Back in 2014, Warriner and her colleagues reported a finding that generated enough hype and renewed interest in the long written off archaeological resource.

Your teeth, and the plaque on your teeth, are often the last things to decay. The plaque traps micro-organisms that lived in the mouth, pathogens found in the lungs and throat and even bits of food that get trapped between your teeth.

The analysis of the DNA trapped in teeth has a telling story into the past, revealing what people ate, what the status of their health was and how their environment impacted their lifestyle.

One of the more surprising finds recently was from a Neanderthal from the El Sidrón cave in Northern Spain. The DNA collected from the skeleton’s teeth indicated that they had a dental abscess on the jawbone and a parasite in the intestines. How did this Neanderthal treat itself? By eating poplar, containing salicylic acid, the active ingredient of aspirin, and a natural antibiotic mould, or penicillium as it is more commonly known.

It will be fascinating to know what Scientists will find in your teeth in 40 000 years.