Quick Tips: Identifying Dental Diseases – Dental Caries.  

Quick Tips: Identifying Dental Diseases – Dental Caries.  

In our previous Quick Tip post on identifying dental diseases, we gave a basic overview on the disease dental/enamel hypoplasia. If you haven’t read it, you can find it by clicking here.

Dental caries, also known as tooth decay, is thought to be the most common of dental diseases. This is due to it being recorded within archaeological populations more frequently than other dental diseases. It is an infectious and spreadable disease, which is the result of the fermentation of carbohydrates by bacteria that are present within teeth plaque. Its appearance can sometimes be observed as small opaque spots on the crowns of teeth, to large gaping cavities.

dental caries

Dental caries appearance can sometimes be observed as small opaque spots on the crowns of teeth, to large gaping cavities.

Dental caries occurs when sugars from the diet, particularly sucrose, are fermented by the bacteria Lactobacilus acidophilus and Streptococcys mutans, which are found within the built up plaque. This fermentation process causes acids to be produced, which in turn break down and demineralises teeth leaving behind cavities.

Powell (1985) divided the causes of dental caries into different areas, which are;

  • Environmental factors, the trace elements in food and water (i.e fluoride in water sources may protect against caries).
  • Pathogenic factors, the bacterial causing the disease.
  • Exogenous factors, from diet and oral hygiene.
  • Endogenous factors, the shape and structure of teeth.

Any part of the tooth structure that allows the accumulation of plaque and food debris can be susceptible to caries. This means that the crowns of the tooth (especially with molars and premolars due to the fissures), and the roots of the teeth are the areas most commonly affected by dental caries.


Lukacs, J.R. 1989. Dental paleopathology: methods for reconstructing dietary patterns. In M.Y. Iscan and K.A.R. Kennedy (eds), Reconstruction of life from the skeleton. New York, Alan Liss, pp. 261-86.

Powell, M.L. 1985. The analysis of dental wear and caries for dietary reconstruction. In R.I. Gilbert and J.H. Mielke (eds), Analysis of prehistoric diets. London, Academic Press, pp. 307-38.

Ubelaker, D.H. 1989. Human Skeletal Remains: Excavation, Analysis, Interpretation (2nd Ed.). Washington, DC: Taraxacum.

White, T.D., Folkens, P.A. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. San Diego, CA: Academic Press. Pg 392-398.

This is the second post of the Quick Tips series on identifying dental diseases. The next post in this series will focus on how to identify calculus (calcified plague), and highlight the cause of this dental disease. To read more Quick Tips in the meantime, click here.

If you’re new to the realm of archaeological, anthropological and forensic sciences (AAFS), or are a student needing sturdy and reliable references, or wondering “what archaeology or anthropology textbooks are good? Check out our new ‘Useful Literature’ page for suggestions from peers and professors!