February 18, 2013

Mouth bacteria changed with civilization... for worse

A premise of Primitivism, which is not really a doctrine or philosophy but more like realistic approach to the human condition, is that our evolutionary past is shaped almost totally by hunter-gathering. That we are basically hunter-gatherers in a jump or maybe formal suit. Why? Because some 95% of the biological history of Homo sapiens, as a formed species is one of hunter-gathering, not of productive economy nor civilization. This percentage can be extended to maybe 99.5% if we consider the whole history of the genus homo, etc. And that is a lot. 

Do I digress? Well, maybe not so much after all. The evolutionary news today is in any case that the bacterial ecosystems in our mouths have been degenerating since Neolithic, and then again with Industrialization. As Not exactly rocket science (a National Geographic blog written by Ed Yong) explains the bacteria in our mouth is not all hostile but, at least for hunter-gatherers, often balanced: some bacteria may attack our teeth but then others protect and even repair them. Much like the better known bacteria of our guts, there is a general balance in which, naturally at least, symbiosis with the human needs tends to dominate. After all those bacteria live in our mouths and therefore need it to exist in good shape: they may not be exactly "aware" of their own needs or the benefits of harm they bring to us but evolution fixes it in the long run, of course. 

Epipaleolithic foragers from Poland with a rather thick plaque, plaque that retained in millennial hibernation the bacteria of their mouth, have provided evidence of Prehistoric hunter-gatherers having a healthy, balanced mouth bacterial ecology. 

Instead Medieval English, who were already eating many carbohydrates from cereals, illustrate with their plaque the beginning of mouth bacterial decadence. There are a total of 34 studied remains between these two dates, illustrating that this change happened exactly with the Neolithic Revolution.

The members of the modern research team used their own mouths as reference for the modern bacterial environment. The results were rather depressing: industrialization has created many refined, unbalanced, foods (white cereals and sugar especially) that cause our mouths to be the boon of dentists.
We are what we eat
(source)

A similar kind of bacterial ecology decadence was observed in a previous study between the guts of Burkinabe farmers' children and those of Italian urban ones. The latter have ecosystems dominated by well-fed firmicutes, associated to obesity.

Reference paper:  Christina J. Adler et al., Sequencing ancient calcified dental plaque shows changes in oral microbiota with dietary shifts of the Neolithic and Industrial revolutions. Nature 2013. Pay per viewLINK [doi:10.1038/ng.2536]

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