How did ancient people clean their teeth?

Dental care was disastrous during the first human civilizations, but our ancestors kept on experimenting.

Most people today adhere to a routine of brushing twice daily, but millennia ago our ancestors faced greater challenges in preserving their teeth. Before the advent of toothpaste, people employed various methods to maintain dental hygiene.

Evidence from prehistoric skeletons indicates ineffective dental care practices, resulting in prevalent tooth decay and gum disease. However, ancient humans did attempt to clean their teeth. Neanderthals, around 130,000 years ago, showed signs of scraping their teeth with primitive toothpicks, likely fashioned from bone or stiff grass.

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Archeologists found that some 14,000 years ago a man suffering from tooth decay on the Apennine Peninsula had the affected portion scraped with a sharp stone tool.

Around 5000 BCE, ancient Egyptians developed the earliest toothpaste, akin to a powder, comprised of ingredients like charred oxen hooves, eggshells, myrrh, and pumice. While likely abrasive, it could remove debris. They also resorted to grinding their teeth with crushed eggshells and burnt oxen hooves.

Subsequent civilizations, such as the Persians and Romans, enhanced toothpaste formulations with burnt snail and oyster shells, herbs, honey, charcoal, and tree bark.

Primitive toothbrushes from around 3500 BCE were found in Egyptian and Babylonian tombs. These were essentially chewed twigs fashioned into bristle-like structures, sourced from specific trees like neem and Salvadora persica, known for their antimicrobial properties.

But the earliest conventional toothbrush likely appeared in China, during the Tang Dynasty (7th to 10th centuries CE). These brushes featured boar-hair bristles and bamboo or bone handles, though they were likely less effective than modern versions.

Medieval depictions often portray people with decayed teeth, particularly among the impoverished. However, contrary to this stereotype, the dental health of most medieval individuals was relatively robust. This can be attributed largely to the absence of sugar in their diets, as it was a luxury only the wealthy could afford.

In contrast, sugar is now ubiquitous in households, contributing to deteriorating dental hygiene.

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Moreover, medieval dental care included practices that proved effective. While they used rough linen cloth to clean teeth and gums, they also employed pastes and powders akin to modern toothpaste. These formulations comprised natural ingredients like sage, rosemary, pepper, mint, cinnamon, cloves, and rock salt.

Interestingly, many of these herbal and spice choices resonate with modern dental products such as mineral brushing powder or coconut oil toothpaste.

Furthermore, ancient Chinese and Indian civilizations employed alternative dental hygiene methods. Chinese remedies featured willow twigs as toothbrushes, soaked in water and chewed. Similarly, ancient Indian practices utilized specific plant and tree twigs with medicinal properties, eschewing pastes. Additionally, tongue scrapers were employed to remove bacteria, a practice that enhances overall health.

While nobility may have had better tools for teeth cleaning, with specific design, common people most likely used anything thin enough to hollow out between their teeth - hence more serious health issues than their rich peer. Dental health was crucial when marriages were arranged – parents often looked into the mouths of partners chosen for their offspring.


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