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5,300-year-old Iceman needed a good dentist

A reconstruction of the Iceman's face, as crafted by Dutch experts, Alfons and Adrie Kennis. New analysis shows the Iceman had bad teeth.
A reconstruction of the Iceman's face, as crafted by Dutch experts, Alfons and Adrie Kennis. New analysis shows the Iceman had bad teeth. Heike Engel-21Lux/Sudtiroler Archaologiemuseum/National Geographic Deutschland
/ Source: Discovery Channel

Otzi the Iceman, the 5,300-year-old mummy found in the Italian Alps 20 years ago, suffered from cavities, worn teeth and periodontal diseases.

Presented at the 7th world congress on mummy studies in San Diego, Calif., the research dismisses the assumption that dental pathologies did not afflict the Tyrolean Iceman.

"In the past 20 years, the mummy has been examined thoroughly both anthropologically and medically. However, oral pathologies were not found," said Roger Seiler, of the Center for Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.

Using the latest CT scan technologies, Seiler and colleagues Albert Zink, at the EURAC Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Paul Gostner and Eduard Egarter-Vigl, at Bolzano hospital, analyzed the mummy's facial bones, discovering several dental problems.

"Although the Iceman did not lose a single tooth until his death at an age of about 40 years, he had an advanced abrasion of his teeth, profound carious lesions, and a moderate to severe periodontitis," the researchers said.

In particular, the molars of the upper jaw showed loss of alveolar bone as a sign of periodontitis (inflammation of the ligaments and bones that support the teeth), while evidence of "mechanical trauma" was found on two teeth.

According to Seiler and colleagues, the most surprising find is the high frequency of cavities.

"These dental pathologies are a sign of change in the Neolithic diet," Albert Zink, head of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman at EURAC in Bolzano, told Discovery News.

Zink hopes to find further clues for Otzi's teeth problems as he conducts molecular analyses of the mummy's stomach material.

"We already know that he was eating grains, such as einkorn or emmer. The contained carbohydrates clearly increased the risk of developing dental diseases," Zink said.

The researchers, who are also working on the Iceman's whole genome analysis, are planning to carry out DNA testing of the mummy's oral cavity. The aim is to investigate the presence of bacteria that could have caused the dental problems.

Frank Ruhli, head of the Swiss Mummy Project at the University of Zurich and one of the experts who investigated the mummy for years, says the work is important because it "helps to understand the evolution of dental disease, particularly around the Neolithic transition."