Ötzi the Iceman suffered from a large number of oral pathologies, according to a new dental examination of the 5,300-year-old mummy.
Carried out at the Centre for Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, the research confirmed a preliminary study presented two years ago at the seventh world congress on mummy studies in San Diego, Calif.: The Iceman had very bad teeth.
“He had everything: dental trauma, paradontal disease, abrasion and caries,” study co-author Frank Rühli, head of the Swiss Mummy Project at the University of Zurich, told Discovery News.
Since his discovery in 1991 in a melting glacier in the Ötztal Alps — hence the name — the mummy has been extensively investigated.
Scientists discovered that Ötzi had brown eyes, was lactose intolerant, had a genetic predisposition for an increased risk for coronary heart disease, and probably had Lyme disease.
It’s certain he died a violent death: In 2007, CT scans showed that an arrowhead had lacerated the left subclavian artery, leading to fast, deadly bleeding.
Although the mummy is one of the most heavily investigated human corpses of all time, researchers had so far paid little attention to possible dental issues.
“His teeth have been neglected for the last 20 years,” Rühli said.
Only the remarkable diastema, or natural gap, between his two upper incisors, and the radiologically easily visible lack of all four-third molars had been reported.
To find out more, Rühli and dentist colleague Roger Seiler re-evaluated the mummy’s latest CT scans from 2005. They detailed their research in the current issue of the European Journal of Oral Sciences.
The three-dimensional computer tomography reconstructions provided the researchers with crucial glimpses on the evolution of dental pathologies. They showed that all 28 teeth had a severe degree of abrasion, while two teeth suffered from large decayed lesions.
Thee molars of the upper jaw featured loss of alveolar bone as a sign of advanced periodontitis (inflammation of the ligaments and bones that support the teeth), which would have caused painful and recurrent abscesses.
Rühli and Seiler also found evidence of “mechanical trauma” or physical hit, on one upper front tooth.
As a result, the tooth probably remained loose.
“This trauma was at least several weeks old and was certainly not related to the Iceman’s violent cause of death,” the researchers wrote.
Although the Iceman did not lose a tooth until the his death at age 40, Rühli believes that within 10 years he would have most certainly have lost some of his teeth.
According to the researchers, the Iceman’s dental issues were based on environmental and possibly on genetic basis.
Certainly, the diet played a key role. Eating more and more starchy foods such as bread and cereal porridge — consumed commonly in the Neolithic period because of the rise of agriculture — would have contributed to the tooth decay.
Moreover, the food was very abrasive because of contaminants and the rub-off from the quern. The researchers even found that one molar has lost a cusp, probably from chewing on something, perhaps a small stone in the cereal porridge.
Although he would have needed a dentist badly, the Iceman’s teeth were somehow working.
“He probably had a functional, yet sometimes painful, dentition,” the researchers concluded.
Image: Samadelli Marco/EURAC/dpa/Corbis