Dental Health of Early Native Americans

WHEN WE PICTURE people of earlier eras, particularly pre-industrial ones, we tend to assume that they must have had really bad teeth. While it definitely is easier to get high-quality dental care these days, not to mention modern orthodontics and modern root canal therapy, the people of the past didn’t always have terrible dental health. Especially in cultures with no access to refined sugar.

Food Played a Big Role for Native American Dental Health

The ancient Native Americans ate a diet mostly of corn (maize), beans, squash, fish, and game, as well as fresh fruit and nuts. Their high-fiber diet helped keep their teeth and gums healthy. The harmful bacteria in our mouths need plenty of sugar and starch to multiply. Foods high in fiber have the benefit of scrubbing our teeth as we eat them.

How Did Early Native Americans Clean Their Teeth?

Just because tooth decay was uncommon doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. One museum in Manitou Springs, Colorado, for example, has an exhibit of replica skulls with holes in the jaw bones from advanced gum disease. To fight against tooth decay, ancient Native Americans used chewsticks — twigs that have been frayed by a rock on one end and sharpened into a toothpick on the other. Chewing on the frayed ends cleans the teeth. They also kept their breath fresh by chewing herbs like sage, cucacua, and mint.

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