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Scientists Find Dentistry Goes Back 14,000 Years, Ouch!

Man's earliest denistry found. (Image: Mr. Aldo Villabruna/Laboratory of Archaeozoology and Taphonomy (L.A.T.))
Man's earliest denistry found. (Image: Mr. Aldo Villabruna/Laboratory of Archaeozoology and Taphonomy (L.A.T.))

Most of us do not like going to the dentist, so imagine if you had that bad tooth 14,000 years ago.

Scientists have found that prehistoric people practiced dentistry with some really awful tools.

An infected tooth from the remains of a 25-year-old man, who died in northern Italy around 14,000 years ago, was partially cleaned with flint tools. This represents the oldest known dentistry.  He was a well-preserved skeleton, and was found in 1988 in a rock shelter burial named Ripari Villabruna.

“The treatment went unnoticed for all these years. The cavity was described as a simple carious lesion,” according to Stefano Benazzi, a paleoanthropologist from the University of Bologna, who led the study.

According to D News, the find represents the oldest archaeological example of an operative manual intervention on a pathological condition. The find was directly dated between 13,820 and 14,160 years old. It’s now kept at the University of Ferrara for further studies.

“It pre-dates any undisputed evidence of dental and cranial surgery, currently represented by dental drilling’s and cranial trephinations dating back to the Mesolithic-Neolithic period, about 9,000-7,000 years ago, “Benazzi said.

Researchers used Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) to take close up photos of the tooth’s enamel and then tested various types of materials like wood and bone before determining that the earliest known dentist’s torture tool was indeed a piece of sharp flint. Image: Mr. Aldo Villabruna/Laboratory of Archaeozoology and Taphonomy (L.A.T.)

Researchers used Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) to take close-up photos of the tooth’s enamel and then tested various types of materials like wood and bone before determining that the earliest known dentist’s torture tool was indeed a piece of sharp flint. (Image: Mr. Aldo Villabruna/Laboratory of Archaeozoology and Taphonomy (L.A.T.))

The new study has been published in Scientific Reports and describes “the oldest known evidence of dental caries intervention.” It details Benazzi and colleagues’ findings, and shows that forms of dental treatment had already been adopted in the Late Upper Paleolithic.

At that time, it is probable that toothpicks to remove food particles from between the teeth were made of bone and wood. But now we have evidence to associate Paleolithic tooth picking with tooth decay.

According to ABC, a bee wax dental filling was discovered in a 6,500-year-old human tooth from Slovenia, while dental drilling, likely to remove decayed tissue, was discovered in 9,000-year-old molars from a Neolithic graveyard in Pakistan.

Benazzi and colleagues analysed the lower right third molar of the Villabruna specimen. They noticed the tooth retains a large occlusal cavity with four cavities. Using scanning electron microscopy, the researcher’s uncovered peculiar striations in the internal surface of the large cavity, ABC added.

“They were the result of a variety of gestures and movements associated with slicing a microlithic point in different directions,” says Benazzi. Basically, the infected tissue was picked away from inside the tooth carefully using a small, sharp stone tool.”

“This shows that Late Upper Paleolithic humans were aware about the deleterious effects of caries, and the need to intervene with an invasive treatment to clean a deep dental cavity,” he adds.

The researchers also noted that the enamel has been partially rounded and polished due to wear, giving the indication that the treatment was carried out for a long time before the death.

According to co-author Marco Peresani at the University of Ferrara, the discovery represents a key moment in the development of dental surgical practices.

“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,” says Peresani.

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