Dentistry is far less modern in origin than you might think. Pierre Fauchard is often considered the “Father of Modern Dentistry.” In 1728 he published Le Chirurgien Dentiste, which contained very detailed information about all different aspects of contemporary dentistry. But dentistry long predates him, reaching back through the Middle Ages and through Ancient Greece and Rome. In fact, it seems dentistry may have started with our prehistoric ancestors.
Archaeologists have discovered evidence that our Paleolithic brethren not only understood the harm that tooth decay could do, but also made efforts to dig out out infected tissue. So next time you think of our prehistoric relatives as merely upright apes, think again.
Did these guys really recognize cavities and know to treat them?
In their discovery, archaeologists found a tooth from a 14,000-year-old skeleton of a human hunter. Uncovered in Italy, the tooth shows distinctive cut marks made by a small pointed flint tool.
Could it be a simple toothpick or more? Scientists conjecture that this was an attempt to scratch and lever material out of an infected tooth cavity to relieve toothache. If so, this would mark the earliest example of dental treatment to be seen in humans.
Dr. Stefano Benazzi, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Bologna, led the work on the discovery. According to him, “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.”
Such ingenuity and awareness of the problems posed by cavities may sound too advanced for back then. A crucial piece of information, however, makes such attention to tooth decay more understandable.
While at the time we were still hunter-gatherers, prehistoric man began to eat more carbs, possibly from small scale agriculture or gathering grains and plants.
Around the time this prehistoric man lived, human diet became more varied. We began ingesting more carbohydrates, found more in foods like grain or foods found in gathering rather than hunting. Carbs breakdown into simpler sugars, which give rise to cavity-causing bacteria.
Dr. Benazzi’s work is actually a reevaluation. This discovery—of a lower right molar—was found in the jaw of a complete human skeleton that was unearthed back in 1988 at the Ripari Villabruna rock shelter in Val Cismon, near Belluno, north east Italy.
Scientists conjectured that the tooth belonged to a young man who was around 25 years old at the time of his death, between 14,160 and 13,820 years ago.
Up until now, however, the indentation found in the tooth was overlooked as a standard lesion caused by tooth decay. Dr. Benazzi utilized an electron microscope to get a real up-close-and-personal look at the tooth.
What they discovered were particular cut marks on the internal surface of the cavity. Experimental tests on teeth using wood, bone and stone points showed the marks were caused by scratching and chipping. Hence the new theory on the table.
Researches are saying that these cut marks were most likely caused by an extremely sharp and fine flint tool—known as a microgravette—cutting and levering in the cavity. In addition, the enamel around the cavity is also rounded and polished due to wear. This strongly indicates that the treatment was performed some time before his death.
Microgravettes resemble these tools, but are even smaller yet retain their hardness.
It seems prehistoric man was well aware of the problems of tooth decay. Besides this discovery, there are other ones that support this. For instance, early human species like Neanderthals and early Homo species are known to have used toothpicks to remove food.
As human tool-making improved and our diet began to take on more carbs, it makes sense that toothpicks would be found among our ancestors. Prehistoric man fashioned microgravettes in the image of their larger hunting weapons. Microgravettes retained the hardness of the bigger tools, making them perfect for teeth.
But one major question remains: who performed the treatment? Was it the work of a prehistoric dentist? Or was it performed by an audacious man on himself? Scientists believe the pain alone would necessitate another’s helping hand. So it seems prehistoric dentistry was very much a thing long before humanity began recorded civilization.