Frozen in time... A Historic Lesson in Early Detection

During their recent travels, Doctor and Anna Razdolsky spent some time in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology where they learned about Otzi, the Ice Man. Otzi is a well-preserved mummy of a 46-year-old man who lived around 3300 BC. That’s 500 years older than King Tut!

Otzi became a global scientific sensation on September 19, 1991 when two hikers from Germany found his body in the Otz Alps, a mountain range between Italy and Austria. The Ice Man had suffered from hypothermia and internal bleeding caused by an arrow in his left shoulder. Archeologists believe he may have been hunting and killed in a skirmish with a rival tribe.

However, what makes Otzi’s discovery so significant is what he teaches us. For the first time in the history of medicine and archaeology, scientists are able to examine a 5,300-year-old mummy using the most advanced diagnostic methods making him the most closely examined patient of all time.

“What makes Otzi so intriguing to us are his dental records,” said Dr. Yan Razdolsky. “Through these findings, scientists were able to discover where Otzi spent his childhood by analyzing his tooth enamel.”

Like the rings of a tree, during the first months of a human life the minerals typical of the landscape where he or she grows up are permanently stored in the teeth. By using 3D computer tomography researchers were also able to reconstruct his oral cavity, providing insight into dental issues of the period, as well as significant findings of how the Ice Man lived.

“A study like this is similar to how we practice early detection today,” said Dr. Razdolsky. “At Forever Smiles we use 3D imaging to look at bone development, tooth structure and soft tissue which helps us assess any issues we may need to address before they become a problem. Otzi sure could have used early detection and treatment,” he added.

Indeed, the Ice Man showed severe tooth enamel wear, had several cavities and gum disease. This supports research claims he had a diet rich in carbohydrates and stoneground flour, which must have contained grit from the milling process, and common in other findings of early man switching from hunter-gatherer to agriculture. It’s likely he didn’t brush his teeth, so any cleaning could only be attributed to these harsh grains. This is not enough to avoid tooth decay and cavities, and compounded with periodontal disease, it is likely Otzi suffered from pain when eating hot or harsh foods.

Also interesting is the link between periodontitis and cardiovascular disease. The discovery of Otzi confirms more current research regarding the link between oral systemic health and overall health in patients. An autopsy of the Ice Man revealed that he had arteriosclerosis, osteoporosis, and many other issues common today -- some of which also have a direct relationship with oral and dental health.

Dr. Razdolsky also noted the Iceman has a wide gap between the upper front teeth.

“The Ice Man had diastema, or a space separating his central incisors,” said Dr. Razdolsky. “This is a very common issue, even now, for some of our Forever Smiles patients. If he could have come in to see us, we could have fixed that,” he joked.

Oh, how little and yet how much has changed in 5300 years!