Long before humans invented writing and the wheel, they learned how to drill rotten teeth to relieve the pain of tooth decay.
Strangely, for millions of years of human pre-history our ancestors were blessed with generally good oral health – even though their dental healthcare consisted of little more than the use of simple toothpicks.
In fact, rotten teeth only became a common problem very recently – about 10,000 year ago, at the dawn of the Neolithic period, a time when our ancestors began farming.
Relatively sophisticated dentistry emerged soon after. In the last decade or so archaeologists have found evidence from cultures across the world that bad teeth were scraped, scoured, even drilled and filled apparently to remove decayed tissue.
Last year the University of Bologna, Italy, took a closer look at a 14,000-year-old adult male skull. They discovered signs that the biting surface of one rotten tooth in the jaw had been deliberately scoured and scraped with a tool, possibly a small flint blade - perhaps in an effort to remove the decayed tissue.
The first drill
We don’t know for sure where the first drill was first invented, but some researchers believe it was being put to use in what is now Pakistan, between about 9,000 and 7,500 years ago. In a Neolithic graveyard, scientists discovered evidence that at least nine different individuals had gone under the drill. All of them had molars with precise holes - each just 1 to 3mm in diameter - bored into the biting surfaces. It is thought that a bow drill was used.
Some indigenous societies today use a bow drill to carve holes in objects. This consists of a few sticks of wood, a sharp stone, and a length of cord. The cord is tied to either end of one flexible stick, making it look like a small version of an archer’s bow. The cord is then wrapped tightly around a second stick held perpendicular to the “bow”. By simply moving the bow back and forth, this second stick will rotate just as a drill does. Attaching a sharp stone to the end of this drill increases its cutting power.
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.
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. In 2012, Claudio Tuniz in Italy, scientists were examing a 6,500-year-old human jaw. 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.
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.
The micro-CT scan of the tooth crown shows the thickness of beeswax (within yellow dotted line).
So next time you visit the dentist, think how much braver Neolithic man was when he had tooth ache!
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