The Effect of the Use of Maple Sugar on the Teeth of the Prehistoric Indian

By J. B. RUYLE, D.D.S. Champaign, III.

Decay of the teeth is older than man himself. Enamel is the hardest substance in the human body. Long after the flesh and other soft parts have been disintegrated by bacteria and have been washed away by the rains, teeth have remained as monuments of the past. Classification of pre-historic animal which lived millions of years ago has been a classification of tubercules and ridges of their teeth. If one believes that man is the lost link in an evolutionary chain, that he claims close kinship to those giant Dryopithecus Apes which roamed the hills of India fourteen million years ago, during the Golden Age of mammals when animals reached their climax in regard to size, he can find that decay of the teeth was not far behind, for an ancient skull found in a mine in Africa, “The Rhodesian Man”, showed that its owner, who was a dental wreck, must have spent many anxious moments to assuage the pain of his caries and abscessed teeth.

Age of Man

If one’s education had been obtained in Tennessee, he would believe that Man was formed from the dust of the earth and cannot be very old. But if we let the height of the Woolworth Building in New York represent all time since the earth was formed, a nickel laid on top of it would represent human existence, which theory would be held as false and sacrilegious by many. But if we hold with the ideas of that great religious scholar, Archbishop Usher, who declared from his profound studies of the Bible that the earth and creation had taken place on the twenty-sixth day of October in the year of 4004 at 9 o’clock in the morning, we would then be in accord with a report which was sanctioned as true and accurate by the church of that day.

But decay of the teeth was matching step with man for Egyptian mummies, of the period 3900 B.C., showed caries teeth. The decay of the teeth of man has been ascribed to various causes. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Fox, Bell and Hunter advocated the theory of inflammation or gangrene, and that destruction of a portion of the tooth crown was analogous to the sloughing of a portion of soft tissue.

Many investigators, a few years before “The Gay Nineties” declared that recurrent decay around filling was due to an electrical phenomenon, that positive and negative poles were set up in the fluids of the mouth which resulted in disintegration of tooth structures.

Other research workers of that period say that in the breaking down of foods free nitric, sulphuric and hydrochloric acids were formed which were the active agents in tooth decay.

Causes of Caries

At the present time there is a school which has demonstrated through several lengthy experiments that carbohydrates are the predominating factor in decay. They say that all carbohydrates which are used for food are in the form of monosaccharids, disaccharids and polysaccharids, that they are broken down into lactic acid which collects in the microscopic pits of the enamel, pits and tissues and attacks the cementing material between the enamel rods.

Another school believes that if one eats a diet which is adequate in minerals that teeth will not decay. Most of the data on which this belief is based have been obtained from primitive people whose diets were heavy in minerals. It has been proven that as long as they were not exposed to the so-called civilization and ate the game which was found in the surrounding country, the fish they caught in the streams, the wild fruit which they collected from the trees and bushes of the woods, they were immune to dental decay. But when they were introduced to the white man’s food of the camp or settlement store, which deficient in minerals, there ensued a general break down of the teeth. The more civilized these primitive people became, the more dental trouble they experienced.

There is, furthermore, a group which believes that the bacillus acidolphus is the predominating factor; that if an antiseptic is used which will kill or will retard further growth, dental decay will be arrested.

The writer, in the last few years, has examined hundreds of skulls and crania of the pre-historic Indians of the Mississippi Valley to determine if their dentition was of a primitive nature and to compare the number of caries teeth, impacted teeth and other dental problems, with that of modern man. One of the collections examined from which data was obtained was that of the Archaeological Laboratory, University of Illinois, which contains specimens which had been excavated under the supervision of Dr. Warren King Moorehead and later by Arthur R. Kelly, Sullivan, Illinois.

The Glacial Period

Thousands of years ago a great glacier came from the North, creeping slowly down through Michigan and Wisconsin and invaded the northern half of Illinois. By the time it reached Central Illinois, it was melting as rapidly as it pushed forward with the result that what is now Southern Illinois was saved from the invasion of the ice. Consequently, from a point fifty miles south of Champaign there is a different predominating form of tree and plant life. South of this line is found the Pink Oak, the Black Oaks and other Oaks, whereas north of this line to the middle of what is now Wisconsin is occupied by what is called the deciduous forest composed of the maple, the hackberry, etc.

Indian Diet

The diet of the Indian of Southern Illinois was one chiefly composed of fish, mammals, birds, corn, etc. In the spring and summer months it was probably augmented by the wild fruits which grew in abundance in that region. Various explorers have commented in letter and diaries that while residing in Indian villages they have been served fruits which have been packed and dried for future consumption. Even so, the aborigine’s diet in winter must have been deficient in carbohydrates, for the Indian of that period had not solved any efficient method of storing fruits for a long period of time. It is known that the Indian of what is now Wisconsin knew how to manufacture and use maple syrup, which was obtained from the sap of the maple tree.

“According to the report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for 1859, there were made in that year over 200,000 pounds of maple sugar, and in 1863 forty tons were made by these people. While at Leech Lake, Minnesota, in July, 1892, I was informed that the Ojibwa of that locality, who number less than 1500 people, had during the preceding spring made almost ninety tons of sugar. When it is taken into consideration that nearly all of this sugar. When it is taken into consideration that nearly all of this sugar was consumed by the Indians themselves, it shows an almost abnormal fondness for sweets. It virtually forms a substitute for salt. Much of it is used with coffee and tea, while the greater portion is eaten either in the granular form, in cakes, or as ‘sugar wax’ which is merely a plastic form of sugar, made by throwing the boiling syrup on the snow to cool. Maple syrup is also used to some extent, but the Indians prefer to dissolve the sugar in water when syrup is desired, instead of retaining it in vessels, which among them, are always scarce, or else are doubtless not in use at all.” (1)

Maple Sugar

“Maple sugar is one of their (Ojibwa) most important foods and is used in almost every form of cookery. Maple sap is saved to drink as it comes from the trees, sometimes with the added sap of the Box Elder of the Yellow Birch. Again, it is allowed to become sour to make a vinegar ‘Ci-wa-bo’ used in their cookery of venison which afterwards sweetened with maple sugar, corresponds to the German fashion of sweet-sour meat. Before they had the salt of the white man, maple sugar took its place and still does when they can get it. And all kinds of meats were seasoned with it.” (2)

The great profusion of sugar maples and soft maples furnished a source of food to the Indian. The maple trees were the chief source of sugar, or carbohydrates, for the Indian who frequented Illinois and Wisconsin before the coming of the white man. Perhaps it would be saying too much to declare that the sugar from the maple trees formed the chief, and no doubt, the only source of carbohydrates for prehistoric man.

(1). Hoffman, Walter J., “The Menomini Indians”, 14 Annual Report Bureau of American Ethnology, Part I, page 288, Washington, D.C., 1892-93.

(2). Smith, Huron, Ethnobotany of the Ojibwa Indians, Bulleting, Milwaukee Public Museum, Vol. 4, No. 3, pp. 394-5, Milwaukee, 1932.

Early Methods

Indians, from times unknown, tapped maple trees for sugar. They made a diagonal cut in the trunks of trees and drove a reed or a concave piece of bark into the lower ends of the trees to convey the liquid into a bark trough or other receptacle. The sap was boiled down n clay or bark vessels by repeatedly dropping hot stones into it. An early settler captured by Indians told us that his captors had sufficiently developed the art to store the sap in large troughs made of elm bark, often of a hundred gallons capacity. They were enabled, by this source of sap, to keep up a continuous production throughout the sap season.

The Indians are also said to have converted sap into sugar by freezing it in shallow vessels or bark and throwing out the ice until sufficient water was removed to allow the syrup to crystallize. This method, though not much used probably gave better results than boiling, since it did not afford as many opportunities for the collection of impurities. The product, as collected by the Indians, was dark, stringy and tangy. The slashes which the Indians made into the sides of sugar maple trees were crude and unsightly. Their rude bark vessels and huge potash kettles were also primitive in the extreme. But the early white settlers assumed these crude methods and made little or no attempt at first to improve the quality of the maple sugar thus gathered or to grade it in any way. There was also very little thought of improving the methods from the standpoint of cleanliness.

However, the crude methods of the Indians were afterwards improved upon by the white men, especially from the standpoint of cleanliness and of improving the grade of the maple sugar, but beyond the crude methods of tapping and boiling by the Indians, the general processes of gathering and preserving maple sugar are essentially the same. (3)

The writer was graciously extended permission by Dr. W. C. McKern, curator of Anthropology, the Public Museum of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to examine the crania and skulls of the Wisconsin prehistoric Indian, but at the present time has been unable to avail himself of the privilege. He received from Dr. McKern a bulletin published by the museum entitled “The Dental Pathology of the Prehistoric Indians of Wisconsin” by Alton K. Fisher, Herbert W. Kuhn and Goerge W. Adamin, which covered in a very efficient manner their research on dental pathology of the Wisconsin Mound Builder.

In their report they stated that sixty-seven individuals, or 23.51 per cent had one or more caries teeth. These figures included twenty-eight or 21.71 per cent of the males and twenty-three or 33.82 per cent of the females. They considered that this report might not be absolutely accurate inasmuch that ante-mortem loss of the teeth, due to pyorrhea, abscesses necrosis of the jaw, might have raised the total a point, not brought out in the bulletin, but which has been noted by the writer is the loss of some teeth during the excavating of the mounds, cleaning and transporting of them to the Archaeological laboratory.

They explained their percentage of caries by stating that the Wisconsin Indians were higher evolved, that a great deal of their cooking was done in vessels. The higher percentage of caries for the female, they stated, was probably due to the fact that during pregnancy some of the calcium salts, needed for the teeth of the mother were diverted to the child to form bones and teeth.

This report is totally at variance with results obtained by the writer in an examination of four hundred and sixteen skulls from Central and Southern Illinois. The percentage was 7.1 per cent. No attempt was made to determine the sex for unless some other osseus structures are present, and much time is spent in measuring them, it is impossible to accurately determine whether the specimen is a male or female.

Some of the skulls studied were excavated from mounds which were geographically close to prehistoric village sites which has a culture that had been found among the pre-historic Wisconsin Indians, namely, the “Aztalan” culture.

The writer has no deductions to make, and has reached no conclusion for in prehistoric research work he has believed that the heavy mineral diet of these prehistoric people, plus the planning off of the occlusal surfaces has prevented tooth decay, and he is at a loss to explain the large percentage of decay of the Wisconsin prehistoric Indian unless the heavy use of maple sugar must have facilitated the breaking down and disintegration of the enamel rods.    9 Main St.


            (3). Maple Sugar and Maple Syrup, J. L. Hills, p. 427, L. H. Bailey’s Cyclopedia of American Agriculture. Volume No. 2 “Crops.”