Stone Age dentistry

I’m always amazed to learn what ancient peoples were able to do in terms of medical treatment. We know how recently (relatively speaking) people became aware of the role of germs in causing disease, and that draining out blood from a sick person was not a way to make him well. Yet thousands of years ago, tools made of stone were used to do surgery – and patients survived, at least sometimes.

I remember visiting the Smithsonian as a child, and looking with morbid fascination at the skulls showing holes from trephination. The thought of it horrified me, but I couldn’t stop looking at them. (Of course, they were in some ways easier to look at than modern photographs of people who extended their earlobes – or worse, their lips – with large circular inserts.)

Today I read about a somewhat more recent practice, of decorating teeth with semiprecious gems. This was practiced in what is now Mexico from as long ago as 2500 years ago, until some time prior to the Spanish conquest of the area. The practice was purely ornamental – as some people do today. What is impressive is that the ancient dentists knew how to drill just far enough in to make a hole to place the gem in, without penetrating to the pulp.

From there I discovered a link to a much older practice, dating back 9000 years ago in what is now Pakistan. Archeologists have discovered teeth that were clearly drilled, and it appears to have been done for medical reasons. Any fillings that may have been used have not survived, perhaps having been made of a much less durable material. But a close examination of the teeth shows that those teeth continued to be used for chewing food after the dental work was done.

Oddly enough, the practice ceased with the beginning of metal-working – which you would think would have enabled those ancient dentists to refine their work. It’s amazing what knowledge we sometimes discover that people had thousands of years ago, that was later lost and only rediscovered much, much later.

I am very glad, of course, to have a dentist with very modern tools. Those stone age dentists may have known what they were doing, but without modern anesthetics it must have been very painful for the patient.


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