Ah, the toothbrush! Your day doesn’t really start until you’ve brushed your pearly whites, but have you ever scrubbed away, pondering the question of how our ancestors took care of their chompers? The answer appears to be a rather weedy one for some humans of our distant past!
Behold, the purple nutsedge—a hardy weed from the cradle of civilization. In fact, many farmers today see this robust vegetation as a nuisance, but travel back in time a few thousand years, and the purple nutsedge was a dental blessing. According to research conducted by the Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats and Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in Spain, “Cyperus rotundus,” as the plant is known by the scientific set, was used as a tooth cleaner and amino acid booster by our African ancestors.
The Sudanese archaeological site of Al Khiday was found to contain the remains of 14 individuals who inhabited the region surrounding the Nile River in about 6,700 BCE. As scientists surveyed the bodies, they came across an odd, granular substance stuck among the well preserved teeth. These hardened particles were studied further only to discover that their chemical composition was a close match to that of the purple nutsedge.
It looks like the ancients harnessed the unique properties of the weed which, when eaten in high enough concentrations, can actually inhibit the growth of cavity-causing bacteria. Chewing on the plant releases a natural bactericide which would help to care for the long-term health of teeth in the 8,000 years before the Sonicare electric toothbrush. When the individuals of Al Khiday were compared to those found in a northern site without purple nutsedge, a striking difference was uncovered. The Al Khiday teeth presented with significantly fewer cavities than those of the sedge-less site.
While other factors (such as a difference in diet) are certainly part of the dental picture, purple nutsedge appears to have played an integral part in protecting teeth in the ancient world. True, it may not be a match for toothpaste, but in the arsenal of past tooth cleaners (which include things like cuttlefish, chalk, brick dust, salt, and ground china!) the purple nutsedge was a victorious choice for our ancestors!