We all cringe at the thought of going to the dentist — and that’s with the comfortable recliners, the soothing music, the anesthetics and analgesics. Imagine what a visit to the dentist must have been like thousands of years ago.
In modern-day Pakistan, where the earliest evidence of dentistry has been found, Stone Age dentists were wielding drills made of flint. Nine-thousand-year-old teeth found at a Neolithic graveyard showed clear signs of drilling, but also signs that rotting gum tissue had been removed, leading researchers to consider the crude drills “surprisingly effective.”
In fact, in a 2006 article for the journal Nature, researchers wrote about the “perfect,” “amazing” holes those flint drills had made. The holes were about one-seventh of an inch deep, except in one case where the dentist had managed to drill a hole in the inside back end of a tooth, boring out toward the front of the mouth. There is no evidence of dental fillings; however, at least one researcher believes some sort of “tarlike material or soft vegetable matter” may have been placed inside the holes. Unfortunately for those early patients, it’s unlikely that the dentists used any kind of anesthetic.
Researchers at the site in Pakistan surmised that a small bow was used to drive the drill tips into the teeth. They said that the drilling was probably done to alleviate pain from cavities. Several flint drill heads were found at the burial site, as well as beads fashioned from bone, stone and shell, so it’s likely that the area’s jewelry-makers supplied the local dentists with the tools of their trade.
While no fillings were found at the site in Pakistan, a site in Slovenia yielded what may be a 6,500 year old dental filling during an excavation in 2012. A jaw was discovered that contained a tooth with traces of beeswax on it. The tooth was damaged in a way that is “consistent with damage that happens in a person’s lifetime” (not postmortem damage) and the wax was radiocarbon dated to the same time as the tooth. The beeswax was only found in the single cracked tooth of the jaw and was likely placed there to mitigate the pain.
Remedying dental maladies wasn’t the only reason ancient dentists found to chisel away at teeth. Cosmetic dentistry was popular in various ancient cultures as well. As many as 2,500 years ago, Native Americans were — to use the popular phrase — blinging out their teeth. In Mexico, anthropologists found thousands of teeth that had been notched, grooved and bedazzled with semiprecious gems. The anthropologists think that such decorations weren’t necessarily an indicator of one’s social standing as skeletons belonging to royals from that region and time period had teeth that had never been tampered with and were free from bling.
The dentists in this case used drills made from a hard stone such as obsidian capable of carving into bone. Fortunately for the patients, the dentists appear to have known what they were doing and avoided drilling into the “pulp” of the tooth where nerve endings are located (although the procedure would still have been excruciating). A paste made from plant resin, crushed bones and other ingredients was used to affix the gems to the teeth.
Just this summer, archaeologists at a Celtic burial site in France discovered a skeleton with a dental implant. The implant, an iron pin that screwed into the gum, held a fake tooth in place, but the archaeologists aren’t sure how the replacement tooth was made.
That particular skeleton dates from the 3rd century BCE, but humans had been replacing their lost teeth thousands of years before that. In Algeria, archaeologists found a 7,000-year-old skull sporting a tooth fashioned realistically from bone, while in Egypt a 5,500-year-old skeleton was equipped with a tooth made from shell. However, these fake teeth were likely implanted after death, a branch of dentistry no longer practiced catering to those embarking on the afterlife.
The ancient Egyptians, it seems, were particularly prone to the maladies of the mouth. In 2012, anthropologists at the University of Zurich examined over 3,000 Egyptian mummies and found that 18 percent showed evidence of dental woes of some kind. This may have been owing to their diet of coarse grains that aggressively wore down teeth. Unfortunately, scant evidence has been found of “dental interventions” in ancient Egypt, one of the few being a cavity packed with linen discovered in an Egyptian mummy about 2,100 years old. Although the Egyptians did develop their own brand of toothpaste, it clearly had limited effect and pain seems to have been a significant and ongoing dental problem. In A History of Dentistry (published in 1909), author Vincenzo Guerini included recipes found on ancient papyri that Egyptians used to ease toothaches and other dental maladies. One of these recipes involved making a mash of beans, dough, honey, green lead and verdigris, while other remedies involved pastes made from fennel seeds, olive oil, onion, cow’s milk, fresh dates, cake…a feast of medicines that, in all likelihood, just increased the patient’s agony.
Our takeaway from all of this? While each of these dental procedures would have been painful, it would be far better to have been a Neolithic patient in Pakistan or a Native American with a penchant for sparkly grills than an ancient Egyptian with a toothache and some old linen! And as for your next trip to the dentist, while your lip is losing all feeling, your tongue is flopping around your consonants and vowels and drinking liquids of any kind is a distant dream, think back to the pre-novocaine ancients. Now doesn’t that make you feel better?
Read Part 2 of our Ancient Dentistry blog to discover how a 3,500-year-old mummy’s tooth solved one of the greatest mysteries of ancient Egypt and became one of the most remarkable finds of modern times.
Also, click here to read more about the dental implant found in France on the website of our curricula partner, Ancient Origins.
Author: Stephanie Castellano lives and works in Alexandria, Virginia, a historic town just across the river from Washington, DC. She is a writer and editor for a local professional association, and volunteers at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum. She loves discovering anecdotes and little-known stories from our collective past that have been forgotten in the sweep of grander events, and writing about them to bring the people and places involved back to life.
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 Knapp, A. (n.d.). Archaeologists Find A 6,500 Year Old Dental Filling. Retrieved August 27, 2014.
 Roach, J. Ancient Gem-Studded Teeth Show Skill of Early Dentists. (n.d.). Retrieved August 26, 2014.
 Ghose, T. (2014, July 14). Vintage Bling: Ancient Celts May Have Had Shiny Dental Implants. Retrieved August 26, 2014.
 Bad Teeth Tormented Ancient Egyptians. Retrieved August 26, 2014.http://news.discovery.com/history/mummies-teeth-disease-diagnosis.htm
 Prigg, M. (2012, October 10). Dentistry, ancient Egyptian-style: Mummy found with teeth stuffed with linen in attempt to cure agonizing tooth-ache. Retrieved August 26, 2014.
 Guerini, V. (1909). A history of dentistry from the most ancient times until the end of the eighteenth century,. Philadelphia and New York: Lea & Febiger. https://archive.org/details/ahistorydentist00guergoog