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Evidence of human tooth jewelry has been found at Çatalhöyük, Turkey. Source: SCOTT HADDOW / UNIVERSITY OF COPENHAGEN

Human Tooth Jewelry Found In Stone Age City

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A team of international specialists has found evidence that Stone Age people who lived in what is modern Turkey, once wore human tooth jewelry. They have found three Neolithic molars that were modified so that they could be worn in one of the world’s earliest cities. These are some of the few examples of this practice in this region of the world and are helping experts to better understand life in the Stone Age.

Çatalhöyük: The World-Famous Early City

The teeth were found during an excavation at the Çatalhöyük archaeological site in southern Turkey. This is recognized as one of the first cities or urban settlements in the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It flourished from 7000 to 5900 BC, and based on the surviving structures experts believe it was a very egalitarian society, which at its peak was home to at least 8000 inhabitants.

Çatalhöyük had a very well-ordered society and the inhabitants buried their dead inside the city. It appears that dwindling natural resources led to conflicts and the ultimate abandonment of the proto-city.

Çatalhöyük, Turkey. (GeniusMinus /Adobe Stock)

Evidence for Human Tooth Jewelry

The teeth were discovered by archaeologists working in the ruins of the Stone Age city and have been dated to between 6300 and 6700 BC. Two of the teeth were found in collapsed dwellings and one came from a person in a grave. It is believed that they all came from older adults.

The three Stone Age teeth all had holes drilled in their roots. The two teeth found in dwellings show greater evidence of modification, while the one found in the grave may not have even been modified by human hands. A multinational team of scientists led by Scott Haddow of the University of Copenhagen conducted a variety of analyses on the human remains, including radiographic and macroscopic tests. This was to determine how the mysterious holes were made or if they were a result of some natural process.

The team soon established that two of the molars had clear evidence of drilling. The holes ‘which were both hourglass-shaped - consistent with biconical drilling’ and were clearly modified, reports Science Alert. Biconical drilling refers to when a craftsperson drills a hole from both the top and bottom of an item. The Republic states that ‘the drill-work was probably done by trained professionals who understood the work.’

Human teeth with holes drilled into them have been found at Çatalhöyük, Turkey. Haddow et al., Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 2019

The greasy sheen on the remains would indicate that the teeth had long been in contact with a soft material such as textiles. It may also be a result of exposure to human flesh. However, when it came to the third tooth, the hole may have been a result of a cavity and not the modification of a Neolithic craftsperson.

The presence of the deliberately drilled holes would suggest that the teeth were threaded on pieces of string. This and the evidence that they were in contact with skin or material would suggest that they were worn by people. It seemed that the Stone Age molars were worn like pendants and beads.

There are many examples of this practice in other parts of the world, but ‘is rare in the Near East,’ reports The Republic. It has already been established that animal teeth were worn at Çatalhöyük, but this new research shows that the ancient people also probably wore human teeth.

Bone Ornaments and Decorations

Indeed, the people who lived at Çatalhöyük often used human and animal remains for decorations and adornments. Science Alert reports that homes have been found to contain ‘animal teeth, horns, and bones, along with the skulls of their dead, plastered over to resemble living faces.’

Most likely the two molars that were modified were extracted post-mortem. They were ‘ likely extracted from the skeletonized remains of mature and old adults,’ according to Science Alert. The grizzly necklaces were probably not worn as fashion statements.

Spiritual Symbolism

It seems likely that wearing extracted teeth had some profound symbolic value for the people of the Neolithic city. The project leader Scott Haddow believes that the “These material choices – and their rarity overall – suggest a deeper symbolic value,” reports The Daily Mail. Thus, this discovery is allowing the researchers to have a better understating of the cultural and even spiritual values of the people who lived in Çatalhöyük.

In recent months other teeth found at the site have also revealed new insights into the population in one of the world’s first cities. It appears that they had a high-grain diet, and this led to problems with tooth decay. The Daily Mail reports that ‘10 to 13 percent of the adult remains had dental cavities.’

A view of Çatalhöyük in Konya, Turkey. (sayilan /Adobe Stock)

A view of Çatalhöyük in Konya, Turkey. (sayilan /Adobe Stock)

It is possible that the prevalence of poor dental health was related to the wearing of jewelry made from teeth too. The result of the current research on the human teeth jewelry has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Top image: Evidence of human tooth jewelry has been found at Çatalhöyük, Turkey. Source: SCOTT HADDOW / UNIVERSITY OF COPENHAGEN

By Ed Whelan

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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