The concept of Neolithic dentists conjures up cartoon images. A “dentist” about to yank a tooth, while his assistant stands behind the patient with a large club, about to administer anesthesia. Or the caveman dentist saying to his patient, “You’ve got an impacted wisdom tooth…that’s what you get for evolving.”
Nevertheless, it appears that there were such things as prehistoric dentists. Concrete evidence of ancient dentistry is rare, but has been found in the past. A 5,500-year-old artificial tooth was found in Egyptian ruins, for example. Ancient teeth found in Pakistan showed evidence of cavities that had been drilled out, as if they were to be filled with something.
Research published September 19th in the journal PLoS ONE shows the clearest evidence yet. Nuclear paleontologist Claudio Tuniz, of the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics in Italy, reports that his team has found clear evidence of caveman dentistry. They found a 6,500-year-old molar with a vertical crack in its enamel and dentin layers that appears to have been filled using beeswax.
New discovery in a skull that has been studied for over 100 years
This ancient example of Neolithic dentistry was found in the jaw of a 24-to-34-year-old man that had been discovered in cave near Trieste, Italy 101 years ago. Even though the jaw has been studied by scientists ever since, the beeswax filling eluded discovery because it was not visible to the naked eye. The researchers found it after using an astounding variety of modern scientific equipment, including “micro-tomography, Accelerator Mass Spectrometry radiocarbon dating, Infrared Spectroscopy, and Scanning Electron Microscopy.”
Carbon dating the beeswax using a large ion accelerator, they verified that it had been inserted into this man’s jaw during his lifetime and decided that the beeswax had probably been used to prevent pain and restore usefulness to the teeth of a man who relied upon them heavily. Neolithic men and women, after all, were stuck using rudimentary stone and bronze tools, and probably used their teeth not only for eating but also to soften leather and make threads for weaving. The tooth showed considerable signs of wear, as if this particular Neolithic man had been engaged in such activities for some time before the dentistry became necessary. Researchers characterized their discovery as “…perhaps the most ancient evidence of prehistoric dentistry in Europe.” The question of whether a club was used to administer anesthesia to the patient remains unresolved.
Fillings then and now…be thankful for scientific advances
While this use of beeswax to fill a cavity in a tooth is highly creative – especially given the era in which it was performed – we have a lot to be thankful for when we look at the advances that have taken place in dentistry since then. Dentists first started using metals to fill dental cavities in the early 19th century, using gold, platinum, silver and lead amalgams. The use of amalgams of metal as dental fillings has continued to the present, and is still one of the most-commonly-used methods because of its ease of preparation and application, and its relatively low cost.
But modern dentistry offers more pleasant and certainly more attractive alternatives to the dark-colored amalgam fillings of the past. Today many fillings are made of resins or glass isomer materials, which are preferred cosmetically because they can be colored to look like the original teeth, and thus not be noticeable. These tooth-colored resin fillings are most commonly used in front teeth, because the resins are not as strong as metal fillings, and thus not as suitable for back teeth, which we tend to bite down on harder when chewing. For the back molars, modern dentists are now able to use custom-crafted porcelain fillings, which not only have the same coloring as the natural teeth, but instead produce a repaired tooth just as strong as the original.
Plus, modern dentistry provides many options to prevent cavities in the first place, and thus to reduce the need for fillings. All things considered, when you next visit your dentist, remember to be somewhat thankful for the advances that have taken place in the science of dental fillings since this Neolithic man had his cavity filled with beeswax. Not to mention the advances in anesthesia; chances are that you’ll be offered a local anesthetic and even an anti-anxiety medication such as nitrous oxide to ease your dental experience. Being hit on the head with a club is rarely used these days unless specifically requested by the patient.