And other facts about ancient dental practices and hygiene….
If you think that having a cavity filled in a clean, well-lit, dental office stocked with magazines and laughing gas is a miserable experience, at least you aren’t having your cavity filled on a mountainside in Italy some 13,000 years ago.
A few years ago we wrote about how dentistry has its roots (Roots get it? That’s a dental joke…like a root canal) back to Sumeria about 5000 years ago.
But anthropologists are now finding that filling cavities dates as far back as the Neolithic period.
Discovered in the northern mountains of Tuscany, Italy researchers noted the placement of holes in two incisors in the remains of an individual.
Talk about painful– the study suggests that the Neolithic dentist used a pointed tool (likely a stone) on his or her subject to widen the hole and scrape out the decay. This ancient dentist then used bitumen, a naturally occurring tar that is a form of petroleum to fill the cavity.
It was previously thought that the oldest known use of filling dated back to 6,500 years ago in Pakistan, where researchers found a tooth that had been filled with wax.
Did our ancestors have lots of cavities?
Depends on what time period and the place we’re talking about. When anthropologists look at skulls dating before the Neolithic period (before 12,000 years ago) they see relatively healthy teeth. This was a time when all people used for dental hygiene was a toothpick.
Rotten teeth only became a common problem about 10,000 years ago. Why?
Farming. One of the hallmarks of the Neolithic period was improved agriculture that included growing grains that could be harvested and broken down into sugary, complex carbohydrates.
The result was poor dental hygiene. Eating more forms of refined sugars and starches was not the only way people came to have more cavities.
Milling and grinding grains was a rudimentary process. In desert cultures such as Ancient Egypt and the Fertile Crescent, sand grains and grit would find their way into bread. The sand and grit led to worn down enamel, making teeth susceptible to decay.
The result? A lot of mummies with a lot of bad teeth.
To cope with this relatively newfound problem of tooth rot, the field of dentistry emerged. While people certainly didn’t visit the dentist every six months for a check up, they began practicing basic dental hygiene.
In the Arabian peninsula people began chewing miswak, chew sticks made from the salvadora persica tree. Indeed the tree is now commonly referred to in many Arabic-speaking parts of the world as the “toothbrush tree.” In Sudan, anthropological evidence suggests people chewed or ingested purple nutsedge, a tuber with antimicrobial properties. In China, strongly brewed tea served as an antiseptic mouthrinse after meals.
Overall, it appears that a diet rich in meat and vegetables and less in carbs determined, at least in part, the overall dental hygiene of a population.
These tactics may have prevented further tooth decay but they were certainly no replacement for modern-day dental hygiene.
If you think you may have a cavity, don’t let a Neolithic dentist drill your tooth. Come see us in Lafayette, Louisiana. We’ll help keep you smiling big!