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Study challenges understanding of oral health in the Stone Age

The Hazda tribe of Tanzania are one of the only tribes to lead a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to this day. (Photograph: erichon/Shutterstock)

Thu. 27. April 2017


LAS VEGAS, USA: The conventional wisdom surrounding humankind’s transition from hunter-gatherers to consumers of agricultural products is that many people in this period suffered from widespread dental caries and periodontal disease. A team of researchers from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) and the University of Arkansas has challenged this understanding with their study of a modern-day foraging tribe, instead suggesting that oral health may be influenced by gender and residential setting.

The study focused on the Hadza tribe of Tanzania, one of the only existent tribes with members who still lead a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and measured differences in their members’ oral health. As many members of the Hadza have now adopted agricultural diets, it was expected that the hunter-gatherers would generally have healthier teeth. “The transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture is routinely associated with declines in oral health, because of increased consumption of carbohydrates and growth of bacterial colonies in dental plaque linked to the development of tooth decay,” explained Dr. Peter Ungar, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the University of Arkansas.

The team’s findings instead demonstrated that the Hadza’s overall oral health is influenced by more complex factors than only dietary choices. Male Hadza members living in the bush and subsisting on foraged foods, for example, tended to suffer from worse dental health than their village-dwelling counterparts, as they often smoked more tobacco and used their teeth in the process of making hunting tools. Female Hadza members residing in the village, however, suffered from more oral health issues than those living in the bush did.

“The Hadza offer us a window into the past and challenge the prevailing assumption that foragers were healthier before they switched to an agricultural diet based on cereals such as corn and wheat,” said researcher Dr. Alyssa Crittenden, Lincy Assistant Professor of Anthropology at UNLV.

“The presumptions we have long held about oral health and the transition from a foraging to an agricultural diet are not as clear cut as we once thought,” she said.

The team of researchers is now aiming to continue studying the Hadza’s overall health as they move further toward a completely agriculture-based diet.

The study, titled “Oral health in transition: The Hadza foragers of Tanzania,” was published online on March 15 in the PLOS ONE journal.

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