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The Precarious State Of Subsistence: Reevaluating Dental Pathological Lesions Associated With Agricultural And Hunter-Gatherer Lifeways

K. Marklein, C. Torres-Rouff, L. M. King, M. Hubbe
Published 2019 · Sociology, Geography

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Numerous bioarchaeological studies emphasize an increase in dental lesions associated with the transition to agricultural subsistence. Over the years, this diachronic trend has led to the conflation and oversimplification of specific dental indicators of oral health with broad subsistence strategies, emphasizing intergroup variation at the expense of intragroup variation. In order to explore such hidden variation, this metastudy uses published data from 185 archaeological sites to test the hypothesis that the prevalence of dental lesions (carious lesions, antemortem tooth loss, and periapical abscesses) among classified agricultural groups is higher than among hunter-gatherers. As a secondary hypothesis, this study also tests the association between climatic variables (temperature variation, altitude, and precipitation) and dental lesion prevalence. Our results show that, despite significant differences in the average prevalence of carious lesions between agricultural and hunter-gatherer populations, the variation in caries prevalence shows high overlap (>70%) between subsistence patterns. Additionally, differences in the prevalence of antemortem tooth loss and periapical abscesses between agricultural and hunter-gatherer populations are not significant, showing even larger overlaps in prevalence ranges. Complementing the lifestyle analyses, climatic factors (mean temperature, annual temperature, and precipitation) are significantly correlated with the prevalence of specific dental pathological lesions and not others. Our results emphasize the need to reevaluate certain dental conditions as direct indicators of broad subsistence patterns, calling attention to the complex multifactorial pathogenesis of dental lesions and the nonlinear relationship between oral indicators of health and subsistence lifeways.
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