At the height of the Viking Age, seafaring Scandinavian warriors reigned supreme in northern Europe and beyond. Yet even as they were terrorizing, say, the British Isles, they were losing the fight against oral bacteria. As it turns out, many Vikings suffered from cavities, plaque buildup, and tooth infections, and they employed various strategies to lessen the pain.

Several studies have examined the dental health of Vikings, including one published in December 2023 in the journal PLOS One. For that study, a research team looked at the skeletal remains of 171 Vikings who had been buried in the 10th through 12th centuries outside Varnhem Abbey, the site of the oldest stone church in Sweden.

Lead author Carolina Bertilsson, a practicing dentist and associate researcher at the University of Gothenburg, essentially gave each set of Viking teeth a routine checkup. She and two dental students used a bright light, a round dental mirror, and a soft toothbrush to inspect 3,293 total teeth, and then X-rayed some of them to confirm their findings.

Among Viking children, they couldn’t locate a single cavity, a far cry from today, where even in Sweden—which Bertilsson calls “one of the countries in the world with the best dental health” —roughly 20 percent of 6-year-olds have already developed a cavity. (The rate is far higher in the United States.)

For Viking adults, though, it was a different story. Over 60 percent of those examined had at least one cavity, and one individual was found with a whopping 22 cavities. Bertilsson and her co-authors also found evidence of plaque and tartar buildup, as well as infections that would have caused painful, pus-filled tooth abscesses. “You can see the traces [of these things] even 1,000 years after,” Bertilsson says.

One Viking woman in her thirties had a tooth infection so severe it may have killed her, either by obstructing her airways or triggering sepsis. “Even today, it’s a serious condition,” Bertilsson says. “You need to use antibiotics. Sometimes you need to go to the hospital to get treatment.”

Viking Diet Was Rough on Dental Hygiene

What caused all these dental issues? The Viking diet may be at fault. Medieval Scandinavians ate meat, fish, dairy, vegetables, and hazelnuts, all generally fine for oral health. But they also dined on starchy and sweet foods like bread, porridge, honey, and fruits, and they imbibed beer and mead, which over time can bring about chronic tooth disease.

Previous research shows that other Viking communities, including in Denmark, Scotland, and on the Swedish island of Gotland, likewise suffered from cavities. Icelandic Vikings, on the other hand, appear to have developed relatively few cavities (though they did experience extensive tooth wear), possibly because they didn’t eat as much starch and natural sugar as their less isolated counterparts. 

The Vikings, renowned for their excellent hygiene, did not take these problems lying down. Bertilsson’s team found evidence that they pulled out rotten teeth, and also used toothpicks—a practice that dates back to the Neanderthals—to dislodge bits of stuck food. More surprisingly, Bertilsson’s team identified two instances in which Vikings apparently dug into a tooth’s pulp chamber, likely to relieve the pain of an infection.

“Obviously, they didn’t have anesthetics, so it must have hurt a lot,” says Bertilsson, who adds that the Vikings were not previously known to have performed such a procedure.

(Though unrelated to dental health, some Viking males also filed grooves into their front teeth, possibly as a status or fashion symbol.)

Medieval Europe: A 'Bad Time for Teeth'

Vikings were certainly not unique among medieval Europeans in having dental problems. “It’s a very bad time for teeth,” Sarah A. Lacy, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Delaware, who studies ancient teeth, says of the Middle Ages. In fact, she says the oral health of humans first started to worsen around 20,000 years ago, at the peak of the last Ice Age, when shrinking habitable land caused dietary shifts. Primitive dentistry followed not too long after; as early as 13,000 years ago, tar dental fillings were being used in Italy.

Due to their diets, hunter-gatherers generally had healthy chompers (although there were exceptions, such as a Paleolithic group in present-day Morocco with a fondness for sweet acorns). But when societies transitioned to farming, their teeth usually suffered, and they began looking for additional ways to treat them. For example, scientists have discovered that flint tools were purportedly used to drill into cavity-ravaged molars in Pakistan some 7,500 to 9,000 years ago, whereas a 6,500-year-old beeswax dental filling was unearthed in Slovenia.

Meanwhile, ancient Mesopotamians (wrongly) blamed tooth worms for dental decay, ancient Egyptians and others used toothpaste, ancient Etruscans fashioned gold crowns and dental bridges, and the Chinese invented the bristle toothbrush. However, modern dentistry dates only to the 18th century, around when the Industrial Revolution ushered in an era of processed flour and sugar that wreaked havoc on peoples’ teeth. Until recently, Lacy says, oral health “just keeps going downhill and downhill over time.”

Indeed, despite lacking fluoridated toothpaste, toothbrushes, floss and professional dentistry, Viking dental health, particularly for children, in some ways surpassed that of 21st-century humans.

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