5,000-Year-Old Mystery Solved: Lady of Bietikow Died from a Tooth Infection!
With clues from the crumbled, broken architecture of a 5000-year-old woman’s mouth, scientists are revealing secrets about ancient diets. The teeth belong to the Lady of Bietikow, who was discovered near a village of the same name in northeastern Germany's Uckermark region during excavations for a new wind farm.
Aged between 30 and 45 years old, the woman who died more than 5,000 years ago was unearthed in an ancient settlement in a squatting position, representing one of the oldest known forms of burial. The researchers who analyzed the woman’s Neolithic skeleton established that the Lady of Bietikow had eaten a grain heavy diet and that repetitive grinding had “extremely worn her teeth” and it is expected that she died from a tooth infection.
The Lady of Bietikow. (Philipp Roskoschinski/Archaeros-Archäologische Beratung und Projektausführung)
Meat-Eating Hunters Becoming Grain-Crunching Farmers
Before we look at the circumstances leading the Lady of Bietikow’s death, don’t for one second think her killer oral disease is a thing of the past. According to HealthJournalism, a 2013 study published in the Journal of Endodontics examined 61,000 hospitalizations for dental abscesses between 2000 and 2008. The researchers found that 66 of those patients – or roughly one in 1,000 – died.
In a Daily Mail article, anthropologist Bettina Jungklaus describes the Lady of Bietikow's teeth as “severely eroded and missing completely in some places.” 5000-years-ago, when the woman was alive, humans were shifting from a primarily meat based diet to an agri-diet based on grains. Because grain could be stored much longer than meat it quickly became a social currency and a means of payment in trade deals.
— European Association of Archaeologists (@archaeologyEAA) November 6, 2020
Tooth Detectives of the Ancient World
According to Dr. A.R. Ten in his 1998 book Oral Histology: development, structure, and function, the human tooth has a complex multi-layered structure. Approximately 45% of a tooth comprises inorganic material (mainly hydroxyapatite), 33% is organic material (mainly collagen), and about 22% is water.
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Colgate informs that tooth enamel is the hardest and most highly mineralized substance in your body, covering the outer layer of each tooth. Made up mostly of minerals, primarily hydroxyapatite, enamel protects the inner layers of the tooth from the corrosive effects of acids and plaque, and the sensations of very hot or very cold foods and drinks. However, if enamel is destroyed, unlike bones, for instance - enamel does not contain any living cells, so it cannot regenerate.
Dr. Jungklaus said the Neolithic ‘grain-munching’ woman’s teeth were in a terrible condition and that the enamel was “heavily worn, chewed off.” The Lady of Bietikow’s oral condition allows the researchers to not only draw conclusions about her diet, but also how she died. It currently remains unclear whether the condition of Lady Bietikow's teeth caused her death, but it is expected that further analysis will determine it was an advanced tooth infection.
Building the Ancient Oral Database
Once the woman’s dietary map is fully charted the researchers will be able to determine whether she was born in, or had immigrated to, the Uckermark region. And putting the Lady of Bietikow in historical context, she lived in the same time period as the famed skeleton 'Otzi the Iceman', who was discovered in 1991 by two hikers in the Oetztal Alps on the border between Austria and Italy.
Scientific examination of the Ötzi mummy. (South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology /EURAC/Samadelli/Staschitz)
According to National Geographic, the researchers studied the nitrogen isotopes of the frozen mummy's hair, which at first indicated he had consumed, just the like Lady of Bietikow, a mostly vegetarian diet. However, a later examination of Ötzi's colon revealed contents pointing to an omnivorous diet, revealing that he had eaten “red deer and goat meat in the day before his death.”
What can we learn from this? Clearly, traditional societies ate what was available in their environment: natural, fresh, whole, real foods, with natural oils and fats. And with everything they ate having been sourced from both plants and animals, void of sweeteners, preservatives, canned chemicals, or artificial ingredients, the range of modern cancers and metabolic diseases was less prevalent. However, in a raw food diet they didn’t consume refined or concentrated grains either, and while this was healthier than today’s grain products, the whole grains cracked, crunched, and crumbled tooth enamel.
Top Image: The 5,000-year-old human remains known as the Lady of Bietikow. Source: Philipp Roskoschinski/Archaeros
By Ashley Cowie