Researchers are claiming to have discovered the world’s first dentistry, dating to about 14,000 years ago, during the Paleolithic Era. Although it was primitive, it seems that it was relatively effective in removing tooth decay.
From Tooth Picking to Tooth Drilling
The new evidence of dentistry predates Egyptian dentistry by nearly 10,000 years, and represents an early attempt at general dentistry. The worked-on jawbone was found at a dig site in Italy in 1988, but it is only recently that researchers noticed the irregular nature of a cavity in one of the teeth. Instead of being the result of dental decay, it seems that the missing tooth material, comprised of both enamel and dentin, had been scraped away by a tool of some sort.
Researchers speculate that the locals modified the technique for toothpicking, which has been used by humans for millions of years, to scrape out a decayed portion of the tooth. This makes sense because people would use toothpicks to remove painful materials from the gums, so addressing a toothache with toothpicking would be a logical extension.
Experimenting with different materials that would have been available to the people of the area, they concluded that the tool used was probably made of flint. Flint can be flaked into small, sharp pieces, and was commonly used for other tools, such as spear points and knives.
There is, however, no evidence that any kind of anesthesia used. Although some think that Paleolithic people might have used some local herbs for their narcotic properties, nothing at this site suggested such a use.
Previous Examples of Dentistry
This new evidence pushes back the frontiers of dentistry by a considerable margin. Written references to tooth decay are as old as writing itself, dating back to 5000 BC. Egyptian descriptions of oral disease and its treatments — including cosmetic dentistry — consist of mostly herbal mixtures. These date from around 3700 BC, and it isn’t until around 2700 BC that we get references to a dentist.
Prehistoric dentistry has several examples, though, of the lengths people went to try to keep their teeth healthy. A tooth with a simple filling was described in 2012, dating from about 6500 years ago. A tooth that had significant decay and a crack in it was treated with beeswax mixed with herbs.
Long before that, though, about 9000 years ago, there is evidence that people used bow drills to remove decay from the teeth of living individuals.
None of these communities that practiced prehistoric dentistry were in contact with one another, and they didn’t share information or techniques.
What a Long Way We’ve Come
Looking back at these examples of prehistoric tooth care reminds us how lucky we are to live in the era of modern dentistry. Evidence of tooth decay in humans goes back at least 25,000 years, and it’s heartbreaking that for most of that time there has been only spotty and inadequate dental care.