How old do you think the dentistry profession is? A few hundred years? A thousand years? A recent discovery seems to suggest that dentistry dates back at least 6,500 years!
A hundred years ago during a dig near Trieste, Slovenia, archaeologists unearthed a very old human jawbone, and on closer inspection it appears that one of the teeth actually contained a filling.
Researchers from Sincotrone Trieste teamed up with other centres around Italy and Australia, including Federico Bernardini and Claudio Tuniz, of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy in order to properly analyse the tooth and its apparent filling, and what they discovered has completely changed the way we have previously seen early dentistry.
The tooth in question was a canine, and appears to have had both a fracture and some serious erosion of the enamel, exposing the dentine. It is clear that the damage to the tooth would have caused considerable discomfort, with both the constant exposure of the dentine causing pain and the biting down on the fractured tooth.
It seems that the tooth had been filled using beeswax, and done so very carefully and with great precision. This means that previous assumptions regarding how early dental work was carried out have had to be revised, with this find suggesting that fillings may have been carried out as early as 4,500 BC.
Dental Fillings For The Afterlife?
What is not clear however is whether the person was alive or dead at the time the beeswax filling was created and fitted. This might seem an odd thing to wonder, since we don’t tend to spend an awful lot of time fitting fillings and crowns for people who are dead.
However, early civilisations did believe very much that after death the human spirit would retain the strengths and frailties of the physical form, and so being either incomplete or in pain was not something to be suffered for eternity. Preparing a loved one or respected elder for the afterlife may well have involved carrying out seemingly unnecessary medical repairs in order to ensure that they were fully prepared for whatever the afterlife had to offer them.
It is quite possible though that the filling was fitted whilst the person was alive, since there is no doubt at all that the damage to the tooth would have been causing them considerable discomfort, and of course back then the teeth were used for a variety of tasks apart from simply eating. We know from other records that the women would often use their teeth whilst weaving, to either hold the thread or to cut it.
The Earliest Example Of Therapeutic Dental Filling In The World
This exciting find is the “most ancient evidence of pre-historic dentistry in Europe and the earliest known direct example of therapeutic-palliative dental filling so far” according to Bernardini.
A report a few years ago published in the National Geographic covered what we know about early dentistry in the Americas, but this only dated back to between 2570 and 2322 BC. It suggested that patients were likely to suffer excruciating agony, and even deadly pain during the procedures carried out. Ceremonial dentures were often fitted, which required the filing down of existing, and often quite healthy teeth.
It seems that whilst the lower teeth were often filed down a little, the upper teeth were filed down a huge way, exposing the pulp cavities. This allowed the fitting of ceremonial dentures, often from a jaguar or wolf. It isn’t surprising that many of these people would not only suffer terrible pain, but would often contract infections which would eventually kill them.
Thank goodness that today dentistry has moved on from fitting wolf dentures, filing teeth down, and fitting beeswax fillings!