Paleolithic Toothache: Oldest Dentistry Revealed in 14,000-Year-Old Tooth of Young Man
Researchers were undoubtedly smiling over a 14,000-years-old tooth that revealed the oldest known dentistry techniques, dating back to the Late Upper Paleolithic (between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago). The infected tooth was found to have been partially cleaned with flint tools, marking an important development in the history of prehistoric dental surgery treatments.
An international team of researchers, headed by Stefano Benazzi, paleoanthropologist at the University of Bologna , examined the remarkable find, which represented the oldest archaeological example of dental surgery on an identifiable condition.
Benazzi told DiscoveryNews, “It predates any undisputed evidence of dental and cranial surgery, currently represented by dental drillings and cranial trephinations dating back to the Mesolithic-Neolithic period, about 9,000-7,000 years ago.”
The Paleolithic patient’s well-preserved skeleton was found in northern Italy in 1988, and it revealed he was a young man when he died, in his mid-twenties. The skeletal remains were between 13,820 and 14,160 years old.
In 2015, the skeleton was reexamined and the infected tooth, with evidence of dental treatment, was found. Until that time, the tooth had been described as having a simple “carious lesion” or decayed area. But further investigation revealed telltale scratches, indicating early identification and treatment of a cavity.
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The partially emptied cavity area of the tooth can be seen, with chipping on the left wall. Top image shows clear wear on the enamel of the teeth. Credit: Stefano Benazzi/Creative Commons
The research findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports .
In the study abstract, Benazzi and colleagues note that prehistoric dental treatments are extremely rare, but as farming culture became more prevalent human diets changed, and carious lesions, or cavities, became somewhat more prevalent, and appear in the archaeological record.
Using scanning electron microscopy the team were able to reveal micro-scratches, chipping and cut marks on the tooth caused by “pointed flint tools during scratching and levering activities.”
The marks are significant as they reveal the types of tools and techniques the early Paleolithic people were using to deal with dental ailments. This particular treatment reveals tooth-picking and scratching with flint tools was used to attack a painful cavity, rather than for simply prying out annoying particles of food from the teeth. Other such toothpicks were thought to be composed of bone or wood. Drilling techniques to treat decay would come later, as found in 9,000-year-old human molars from Neolithic Pakistan.
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An experimental reconstruction of a bow and flint-tipped drill used to bore through molar teeth found at a Neolithic graveyard in Mehrgarh, Pakistan. Credit: University of Poitiers
“Basically, the infected tissue was picked away from inside the tooth carefully using a small, sharp stone tool,” Benazzi told DiscoveryNews.
There’s no indication that the resulting holes were filled with any material, such as in the case of the 6,500-year-old human tooth found in Slovenia which was filled with bees wax.
In ancient Egypt, papyri contain remedies for tooth decay. In some instances the tooth was filled with ground barley mixed with honey and yellow ochre.
The researchers note the Paleolithic patient may have died when he was 25, but the wear and tear on his teeth show his dental work was done many years previous to that.
Study of ancient remains from around the world has demonstrated the ingenuity that existed in the application of surgical and cosmetic dental practices going back many millennia . In 2017, researchers discovered the world's most ancient dental fillings in northern Italy . The fillings were spotted inside a pair of 13,000-year-old front teeth and they were made of bitumen, a semi-solid form of petroleum. Some scientists even believe that the discovery of multiple toothpick grooves on Neanderthal teeth and signs of other manipulations of 130,000 years ago are evidence of a kind of prehistoric dentistry .
Study co-author Marco Peresani of the University of Ferrara Peresani told DiscoveryNews, “It shows that humans combined dexterity and creative skills and properly managed technology for producing tools also in early dental medicine well before the Neolithic.”
Featured Image: Infected tooth partially cleaned with flint tools, dating to the Late Upper Paleolithic. It is credited as the oldest found evidence of dentistry. Credit: Stefano Benazzi/Creative Commons
By Liz Leafloor