Dental calculus (calcified tartar or plaque) is today widespread on modern human teeth around the world. A combination of soft starchy foods, changing acidity of the oral environment, genetic pre-disposition, and the absence of dental hygiene all lead to the build-up of microorganisms and food debris on the tooth crown, which eventually calcifies through a complex process of mineralisation. Millions of oral microbes are trapped and preserved within this mineralised matrix, including pathogens associated with the oral cavity and airways, masticated food debris, and other types of extraneous particles that enter the mouth. As a result, archaeologists and anthropologists are increasingly using ancient human dental calculus to explore broad aspects of past human diet and health. Most recently, high-throughput DNA sequencing of ancient dental calculus has provided valuable insights into the evolution of the oral microbiome and shed new light on the impacts of some of the major biocultural transitions on human health throughout history and prehistory. Here, we provide a brief historical overview of archaeological dental calculus research, and discuss the current approaches to ancient DNA sampling and sequencing. Novel applications of ancient DNA from dental calculus are discussed, highlighting the considerable scope of this new research field for evolutionary biology and modern medicine.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics