We celebrate Columbus Day to recognize the voyage Christopher Columbus made across the Atlantic Ocean from Spain to the Americas in 1492. Many people know the story of Columbus, but did you know we’ve learned a lot about his journey from teeth?
Each person’s teeth are unique and different, varying according to diet, location and daily habits. As such, they are often very important to anthropological studies. Tooth chemistry has taught us a lot about the early days of the New World and how you can take care of yours.
The first planned colonial town in the New World was founded in 1494, when about 1200 of Christopher Columbus’s crew members from the 17 ships that made up his second journey to the Americas settled on the north coast of what is now the Dominican Republic. La Isabela had all the makings of a great town. However, after massive hurricanes, combined with disease, mutiny and mismanagement caused most to abandon La Isabela after just three years.
Christopher Columbus is said to have had only one tooth, which is the reason he never smiled in portraits. He may have kept the one tooth, after all his others had gone bad due to poor diet and months at sea and little care available to him, because of regulations stating a soldier had to have at least one tooth so the he could load ammunition – teeth were used to extract and reload gunpowder in the heat of battle. Dental care in the late 1400′s was limited primarily to extraction, as little could be done to restore decayed teeth. Most people wiped their teeth with a cloth, or used frayed sticks to brush their teeth.*
About 500 years later, excavators discovered skeletons in the church’s cemetery and began analyzing them to learn more about this forgotten colony. While the skeleton’s were discovered some time ago, it has been in the past few years that sophisticated chemical studies of the skeleton’s teeth, have begun to yield more insight into the lives and origins of Columbus’s crew.
More so than any bone, tooth enamel is very sensitive to its circumstances. Basically, the molecules of your teeth record information about your young life, diet and environment. Scientists study the ratios of certain elements in skeletons’ teeth to determine where they were from.
The proportions of each element reveal something different about the crew member. Chemists use strontium levels to determine where a crew member grew up, carbon to assess diet, and oxygen to learn more about the climate where the person lived.
The analysis showed that Columbus’ crew may have included three free African American men, who would be some of the earliest to come to the Americas.
Taking Care of Your Dental Chemistry
While much has changed in the last five centuries, the way your diet, upbringing, and environment affect your teeth has not. Many chemical processes change the way your teeth look and feel. For example, acids in citrus and sodas can begin to break down the enamel of your teeth, making them more vulnerable to cavities and sensitive to heat or cold.
As the La Isabela study shows, chemists could pinpoint the region of Africa the crew members came from simply by examining their teeth because the chemical composition of teeth is so sensitive during childhood. This is why we recommend that children have fluoride treatments, which encourage calcium and phosphate production in teeth. We also recommend sealants to safeguard children’s teeth as they grow, paving the way for better dental health into adolescence and adulthood.