How are your teeth? Probably better than the people living in the Lower Pecos region of Texas 4000 years ago (plus or minus). We should count our lucky stars that we have toothbrushes and dentists. Archaic people’s dental problems must have caused them great pain, with very little to ameliorate the situation, and affected many areas of their lives.
Many, if not most, of the adult Archaic skeletons discovered by archeologists in the area of Texas where the Pecos river meets the Rio Grande, show that the population was relatively free of disease except for extreme tooth decay (Rose, et al., 1988; Turpin, 1994). Mailloux (2003) analyzed teeth from 38 Archaic skeletons and found that the majority of the tooth crowns had been “obliterated.” This high incidence of tooth decay and tooth loss has been attributed to the sugar content of the diet, which partially consisted of large quantities of prickly pear and agave (Turpin, Henneberg and Riskind, 1986; Danielson, 1998).
Watch this 2 minute video to understand what happens when a tooth becomes decayed. If it does not load automatically, just hit “watch it on YouTube.”
You can easily see how tooth decay and abscess would be painful. There are other consequences if many teeth are affected or missing (as is the case with the above mentioned skeletons). First, there is the problem of eating. Food would need to be mashed and carefully swished around the mouth to get the benefit of saliva, which breaks down certain chemicals in food, then carefully swallowed so as not to choke. This type of food preparation would be time consuming in the stone age kitchen, and impose an extra burden on the chef. So that big hunk of charcoaled venison you wanted for dinner is definitely out. You get raw mashed venison liver instead. Probably healthy, but not so good in a taco.
In addition, a lack of teeth causes a loss of support for the lips and cheeks, giving a “sunken in” look to the
lower third of the face. This causes the tongue to broaden out and affects pronunciation of many words. We have many consonants in English which require the tongue to strike the teeth for proper pronunciation. For instance, think of the sound of the letter “t”. Feel how the tongue curls to strike the upper teeth when you repeat the sound. Not being able to do this would make it difficult to communicate clearly and undoubtedly cause frustration to all parties.
Eventually, the loss of many teeth can reduce the flow of saliva in the mouth. Saliva washes away bits of food on the teeth and neutralizes acids produced by bacteria in the mouth. Without this A) you get dry mouth, which is not very comfortable in the desert), and B) the body becomes more prone to heart disease, which means you probably die young (as most of the skeletons discussed above did).
Having fewer teeth in the mouth causes progressive bone loss in the jaw, which in turn causes the lower third of the face to collapse even more. Recent studies have demonstrated a link between periodontal bone loss and osteoporosis, which causes brittle bones that easily break. Again, not good if you must climb in and out of the rugged canyons of the region to find dinner. The poor condition of their teeth undoubtedly caused shorter lives and many problems for the people affected.
People of the Archaic Lower Pecos had few remedies for all this tooth ache. They did have willow bark however ( See my blog entry of April 8, 2013) for the pain-killing
properties of willow bark.) Willow bark contains the same active ingredients as aspirin and would have been an effective medicine. You could drink it as a tea, or in another possibility I hearby propose, soak a quid (or wad) of lechuguilla fiber in strong willow tea and hold that against the spot in pain. Lechuguilla quids have been discovered in many rock shelters in the area, but archeologists have proposed few suggestions about their use. Quids might have been soaked in other teas with pain killing substances, such as datura or peyote tea. (See blogs of March 3 and February 4, 2013 for discussion of these plants.)
Another plant commonly known today as leatherstem (Jatropha dioica) was probably used by ancient people. Leatherstem is also known as Sangra de Drago and various other Spanish names, and is found wild all over the Lower Pecos region. This plant has the wonderful ability to go dormant during drought times, and
burst into leaf a day or two after even a sprinkle of rain. It also has the ability to numb pain, particularly in the gums. Just break off a twig and rub it over sore gums for instant, albeit minor, relief.Perhaps people smashed these twigs and used the paste on their gums as well.
Other antibacterial agents were available to the people as well, such as wild oregano, sage, possibly hot peppers, and charcoal. People could make a poultice using any, or all, of these ingredients to sooth mouth pain.
If my teeth were hurting as much as indicated for the Archaic peoples along these rivers, I would have used everything available, plus a good dose of ritual from the shaman, to make the pain go away.