How our ancestors drilled rotten teeth


What might help to convince sceptics is more evidence of similar sorts of dentistry in early farming societies. Last year Ortiz and her colleagues found exactly that - almost half the world away from Pakistan in the pre-Hispanic societies of Peru. They examined the remains of two individuals who lived about 550 and 650 years ago. Both teeth contained the same tiny round holes as seen in the 9,000-year-old teeth from Pakistan.

It appears to me that the way the drilling was done included two different tools,” says Ortiz. “A rotary drilling followed by some sort of micro-tool for scraping.”

P03kncl6Tooth decay is rare in pre-agricultural societies (Credit- Martinon-Torres)

What’s more, she says there is emerging evidence of drilling in a different Peruvian culture - the Yschma – a society which dates back more than 1,000 years.

There, a prehistoric dentist might even have given his patients local anaesthetics, such as coca leaves, to mask the pain of the operation. “They are generally used as painkillers, so it is likely that either coca leaves (or any other medicinal plant) were used as anaesthetics,” says Ortiz. “Especially considering the great knowledge of traditional medicine that pre-Hispanic peoples appear to have had.”

As good as dental drilling is at removing decayed tissue, there is one more skill a dentist needs: the ability to fill the tooth after treatment. Remarkably, there is some evidence that fillings have prehistoric roots too.

In 2012, Claudio Tuniz at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, and colleagues were testing new state-of-the-art 3D imaging technology. One specimen they examined was a 6,500-year-old human jaw (below). It was found about 100 years earlier in a cave near the village of Lonche in what is now Slovenia. The researchers noticed something unusual attached to one tooth. It turned out to be a cap of beeswax, as old as the tooth. It had been applied to fill a hole in the enamel.

P03knym5A 6,500-year-old human jaw (Credit: Claudio Tuniz)

Beeswax would actually have made a reasonably good filling material. That's because it is soft and easy to work when warmed but becomes solid at human body temperature. It also has the added benefit of antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. 

It seems that the canine of our Lonche Man remains the earliest dental filling that has been discovered so far,” says Tuniz. “I was recently contacted by Guinness World Records since our discovery exceeds their current record. They are still evaluating our case.”

The Trieste Natural History Museum, where the specimen is housed, is already convinced of its importance. “Until 2012 the mandible [jawbone] was in a small corner of the museum, while now it is the star of the museum and has its own special room, enriched with images from our analyses,” says Tuniz. It's already “a big attraction for school kids”. 

And you can imagine why. Despite our rapidly advanced dental technology, the idea of dental drilling still scares many of us today. Now imagine your teeth being drilled by Neolithic tools and our ancestors suddenly appear a great deal braver than us. They must have known the true fear of a trip to the dentist.