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09 October 2012
The prospect of a visit to the dentist is enough to make even the hardiest of souls turn a delicate shade of lime at the corner of the eyes. Most procedures these days are done under a gently applied anaesthetic, and while smelling portions of your anatomy burning as they are filed away is never a pleasant past-time, much of dentistry’s terrifying reputation has more to do with its past than its present. What a new discovery has shown however, is that the history of dentistry may go back further than we had previously thought.
We know that dentistry, in some form, has been practiced for about 5000 years. Egyptian skulls dating from 2900 to 2750 BCE contain evidence of small holes in the jaw in the vicinity of a tooth’s roots. Such holes are believed to have been drilled to drain abscesses. Around 3000 BCE we also find the burial of the Egyptian Hesi-Re and inside his burial chamber is the inscription, “the greatest of those who deal with teeth, and of the physicians.” So dentistry was certainly around 5000 years ago and it was firmly entrenched by the Roman era.
The Greek physician Archigenes practised in Rome around 100 AD and believed that some of the causes of toothache were from inside the tooth itself. He made a special drill to get to the inside of the tooth and one of his recommendations was to put an ointment made of roasted earthworms, the plant spikenard (Nardostachys grandiflora), and crushed eggs of spiders into the hole that he had made. All of which makes a mere bit of drilling seem a walk in the park.
So the Greeks and Romans were practising dentistry around 3000 to 2000 years ago and the Egyptians before them were doing it around 5000 years ago. A new discovery from Slovenia though, may have pushed dentistry back at least another 1500 years.
The new find is a human jaw bone found in Slovenia near Trieste. It comes from the Neolithic (Stone Age) era in Europe and dates to around 6500 years ago. What is interesting about this jaw bone is that it shows signs of what appears to be dental work.
One of the teeth in the jaw shows signs of severe wear indicating that it was used for things other than eating, possibly such as holding thread for weaving. The tooth however, has been treated.
The treatment is a beeswax filling and it was apparently fitted before or slightly after death. If it is before death then it is the earliest confirmed dental work that we have. The wax would have reduced pain and sensitivity arising from a vertical crack in the enamel and dentine layers of the tooth.
Whoever did the dental work, our Neolithic friend can be thankful they opted for beeswax and were not from the “roasted worms and spider’s eggs” school of dentistry.