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April 11, 2017
If you’re not a fan of the dentist, imagine what it was like 13,000 years ago.
Archaeologists have discovered in northern Italy a pair of prehistoric upper central incisors—your buckteeth—that had been drilled with sharpened rocks and packed with rudimentary fillings. While evidence of dental work dates back to 14,000 years ago, this new finding is the earliest documentation of dental fillings.
Stephano Benazzi, an archaeologist at the University of Bologna, and his team used microscopic techniques to analyze the insides of each deeply pitted tooth. It looks like the infected gunk was removed from the teeth by scraping and drilling into them with tiny stone tools. It probably wasn’t a pleasant experience.
The Upper Paleolithic era may have introduced changes in diet as Europe was undergoing cultural changes and new people immigrated, and those changes may have driven the need for dentistry.
Here’s Nathaniel Scharping, reporting for Discover Magazine:
The researchers dated the teeth to between 13,000 and 12,740 years ago, a time period that they note predates the introduction of widespread agriculture. Once humans began cultivating grains and other carbohydrates, cavities and other dental problems appeared with much greater frequency. The carbs break down in our mouths into simple sugars that feed cavity-causing bacteria.
Embedded in the cavity holes were bits of hair, vegetable fibers, and bitumen—a tar-like substance primarily used today to pave roads. Researchers believe that the sticky bitumen helped hold it all together, and given the available resources, the ancient dentist could have done worse in his or her choice of materials.
Some archaeologists believe bitumen, along with other medicinal plants, could have been used as an antiseptic during the process as well. After drilling out the cavities, the Paleolithic dentists would have filled the tooth with bitumen to reduce pain and keep food out. Benazzi says this isn’t so different from methods observed in modern dentistry. Other examples of prehistoric dental practices show beeswax being used in the same manner.