Vikings Had Terrible Teeth | HISTORY


At the height of the Viking Age, Scandinavian seafaring warriors reigned supreme in Northern Europe and beyond. However, while they are terrorizing the British Isles, they are losing the battle against oral bacteria. It turns out that many Vikings suffered from cavities, plaque buildup, and tooth infections, and they employed a variety of strategies to relieve the pain.

Several studies have examined the dental health of Vikings, including one published in December 2023 in the journal PLOS One. In the study, a team looked at the skeletal remains of 171 Vikings who were buried between the 10th and 12th centuries outside Varnhem monastery, home to Sweden's oldest stone church.

Lead author Carolina Bertilsson, a practicing dentist and research associate at the University of Gothenburg, performed routine examinations of virtually every set of Viking teeth. She and two dental students examined 3,293 teeth using a bright light, a round dental mirror and a soft toothbrush, then X-rayed some of the teeth to confirm their findings.

Among Viking children, they could not find a single cavity, a far cry from today, and even in Sweden—which Bertilson calls “one of the best dental health countries in the world”—approximately 20% of children as young as 6 years old already have tooth decay. (The U.S. rate is much higher.)

For Viking adults, however, it's a different story. More than 60% of those tested had at least one cavity, and one person was found to have as many as 22 cavities. Bertilson and her co-authors also found evidence of plaque and tartar buildup, as well as infection that can lead to painful, pus-filled tooth abscesses. “You can see the traces [of these things] Even 1,000 years from now,” Bertilsson said.

A Viking woman in her thirties suffered a tooth infection so serious that it could have killed her from blocking her airway or causing sepsis. “Even today, this is still a serious situation,” Bertilson said. “You need antibiotics. Sometimes you need to go to the hospital for treatment.

Viking eating habits had a great impact on dental hygiene

What causes all these dental problems? There may have been something wrong with the Viking diet. Medieval Scandinavians ate meat, fish, dairy products, vegetables and hazelnuts, which were generally good for oral health. But they also ate starchy and sweet foods such as bread, porridge, honey, and fruit, and drank beer and mead, which over time can lead to chronic dental disease.

Previous research has shown that other Viking communities, including Denmark, Scotland and the Swedish island of Gotland, also suffered from tooth decay. Icelandic Vikings, on the other hand, seemed to have relatively little tooth decay (although their teeth did undergo extensive wear and tear), possibly because they didn't eat as much starch and natural sugars as their less isolated counterparts.

The Vikings were known for good hygiene, and they didn't sit back and take these problems lightly. Bertilson's team found evidence of extracting decayed teeth and also using toothpicks (a practice dating back to Neanderthals) to remove stuck food. Even more surprising, Bertilson's team found two examples of Vikings apparently digging into the pulp chambers of their teeth, possibly to relieve the pain of infection.

“Obviously, they didn't have anesthesia, so it was definitely painful,” Bertilson said, adding that the Vikings were not previously aware of such a surgery.

(Although not related to dental health, some Viking men also had their front teeth notched, possibly as a status or fashion symbol.)

Medieval Europe: “A Bad Age for Teeth”

The Vikings were certainly not the only people in medieval Europe to have dental problems. “It’s a very bad time for teeth,” Sarah A. Lacy, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Delaware who studies ancient teeth, said of the Middle Ages. In fact, she said humans' oral health began to deteriorate about 20,000 years ago, during the height of the last Ice Age, when shrinking habitable land led to a shift in eating habits. Primitive dentistry followed soon after. Tar fillings were used in Italy as early as 13,000 years ago.

Due to their eating habits, hunter-gatherers generally had healthy chewing abilities (although there were exceptions, such as the Paleolithic groups in present-day Morocco who enjoyed eating sweet acorns). But when societies transitioned to agriculture, their teeth often became damaged and they began to look for other ways to treat their teeth. For example, scientists have found that flint tools were allegedly used to drill into cavity-damaged molars in Pakistan around 7,500 to 9,000 years ago, while beeswax dental fillings from 6,500 years ago were unearthed in Slovenia.

Meanwhile, ancient Mesopotamians (wrongly) blamed tooth decay on toothworms, ancient Egyptians and others used toothpaste, ancient Etruscans crafted gold crowns and bridges, and the Chinese invented bristle toothbrushes . However, modern dentistry only dates back to the 18th century, when the Industrial Revolution ushered in the age of processed flour and sugar, which wreaked havoc on people's teeth. Until recently, oral health “had been going downhill over time,” Lacey said.

In fact, despite a lack of fluoridated toothpaste, toothbrushes, dental floss, and professional dentistry, the dental health of the Vikings, especially that of children, in some ways exceeds that of 21st century humans.

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