Human Journey

The Leader of the Plaque: Iceman Ötzi had bad teeth

After a series of experiments, the Iceman mummy is refrozen in an Italian lab.(Credit: Robert Clark, National Geographic)

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 Iceman mummy's shaggy appearance was reconstructed in 2011. (Credit: Robert Clark)
The Iceman mummy’s shaggy appearance was reconstructed in 2011. (Credit: Robert Clark)

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).

A 3D reconstruction of the Iceman's teeth, showing the right side. The arrows call out cavities, tooth decay, and bone loss around the molars. (Credit: UZH)
A 3D reconstruction of the Iceman’s teeth, showing the right side. The arrows call out cavities, tooth decay, and bone loss around the molars. (Credit: UZH)

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.

 

Focusing on content that entertains, astounds, and informs, Amy Briggs is freelance writer and former senior editor with National Geographic Books . The author of National Geographic Angry Birds Space, Briggs worked closely with National Geographic NewsWatch's David Braun on National Geographic Tales of the Weird. Excited by all things trivial, odd, and just unusual, she lives in Virginia with her family.
  • Nanson Hwa

    Icemen probably all had bad teeth since they ate anything they could get their hands on in order to survive. No knowledge of oral hygiene and bad living habits contributed to their oral condition. Protein matter caught between the teeth that was not readily removable lead to tooth decay and simple sugars from cereal coated the teeth which weaken the enamel. Individuals with small mouths could not accommodate the incoming wisdom teeth and molars which lead to got crowded and crooked teeth. As a result peridondital disease and infection could have contributed to their premature death.

  • Dr Azhar

    No third Molars there. Raises a lot of questions.

  • Alp Kunkar

    Molto interessante.

  • John Gomez

    I am always hoping to find groups or tribes of men to be around about 6 thousand yrs ago to prove a personal thought about the books – I also believe that there was evidence of man living around in north central Siberia some 10 thousand yrs ago – Pottery was found in that region according to NG – More evidence that man has been here for over 6 thousand years – I am hoping to hear more about early man from the central Africa or mid-Asian areas

  • amaning

    i’ve read much about people from the Iceland.their way of life,cultural,ethnicity

  • Nightman

    Ciekaw jestem ile takich “skarbów” kryją lodowce górskie.

  • 3abdo moneer

    thanks for your eforts

  • Andrew

    As with most illnesses and diseases, earlier peoples didn’t understand the causes. Florence Nightingale for instance famously refused to believe in the existence of bacteria. Most people like Otzi wouldn’t have bothered with dental hygiene as they, their parents and community had never seen any reason. People also had a different approach than us to odours and personal hygiene so what we consider as bad breath would probably just have been accepted as normal.

    The lack of personal hygiene probably contributed to a lower life expectancy than today. In the UK during much of the 19th Century the most common cause of death listed on death certificates was the single word ‘Teeth’. Dental disease and consequent blood infections killed more people than any contagion or childbirth! Only with the discovery of bacteria and understanding the cause of infection did things improve. It was probably much the same for Otzi’s community.

  • Jim

    Actually, the fate of many modern teeth is just as likely, if not more so, to be worse than that faced by people like Otzi who lived before the age of highly processed food. I think this story would lead people to believe that if you lived before modern oral hygiene, your teeth would be a mess. This is not necessarily true. Read the works of Dr Weston Price to learn more.

  • Buddy simpson

    can you imagine how he would have handled a major abcess

  • forever nuts

    I am still waiting to find out how we of this is connected to Chimps or gorillas. I mean where is the orginal parents ? or even still, where is the fish that mutated into a mammal let alone a walking talking mammal ? Or the algea or molecular form that started all the mutation processes

  • sebastian

    You are crazy boo hoos!! Those comments are killing me. HA HA HA

  • Dentist in Chatsworth CA

    Can you imagine how he would have handled a major problem, the bad breathe, at that time. I am a bit confused.

  • JonLemon

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