A pair of ancient teeth discovered in northern Italy proves that root canals have been around longer than we previously thought.
The teeth in question, two upper central incisors belonging to one person, show signs of being drilled very deeply to remove decay and diseased tissue. Each tooth has a large hole in the incisor’s surface that extends down into the pulp chamber deep in the tooth. Judging from the fine lines on the interior of the teeth, the drilling was done with very small, sharp stone tools. The holes were then filled with a naturally occurring petroleum product known as bitumen, which is a sticky black tar-like substance.
Bitumen, by the way, is where we get the word “mummy” – the Arabic for bitumen is “mum” and the appearance of Egyptian preserved bodies suggested that they had been prepared with bitumen. The material was also used as an adhesive to set bones, and an antiseptic to heal wounds – and in road and building construction. (Fun fact: During the 12th-18th centuries, mummies themselves were ground to a powder and used as medicine.)
The substance in the newly-discovered ancient teeth also contained plant fibers and hairs that appear to have been added to the cavity during the drilling and filling process. Researchers do not yet know whether these substances were added as an antiseptic to promote healing, or to enhance the filling material.
Cavities Created Dental Care
The teeth were discovered at the Riparo Fredian site in Italy, and are thought to date back to the Upper Paleolithic, between 13,000 and 12,740 years ago. Researchers have found evidence that dental care was happening as far back as 14,000 years ago, but this new find marks the earliest example of a dental filling. The procedure was obviously done to treat an infection, and keep the teeth from decaying further.
Claudio Tuniz, an archaeologist at the University of Wollongong in Australia, told New Scientist that that “these teeth show that humans had developed therapeutic dental practices thousands of years before we developed the systematic production of foods such as cereals and honey, which are thought to have been responsible for a dramatic increase in dental problems like cavities.”
During the Upper Paleolithic, at the time the owner of these teeth was alive, Europe was undergoing big cultural changes, as new people arrived on the continent from the near East, says Benazzi. They might have brought with them new kinds of food, which led to more cavities. “This change in diet and cavities could have led to dentistry,” he says.
With only the two teeth to go by, Benazzi is not able to say much about the patient. All that can be gleaned is that, judging by the amount of wear, he or she was not young.
The First Dentists
Hesy-Re, an Egyptian scribe, often called the first “dentist.” Given recent finds of repaired ancient teeth, it’s obvious that Hesy-Re was not the original dentist but appears to be the first to be honored for his work with teeth. He died in 2600 BC and the inscription on his tomb includes the title “the greatest of those who deal with teeth, and of physicians.” This is the earliest known reference to a person identified as a dental practitioner.
Egyptians and Greeks wrote about dental care. An Egyptian text, the Ebers Papyrus (1700-1550 BC) refers to diseases of the teeth and various toothache remedies. Hippocrates and Aristotle wrote (500-300 BC) about dentistry, including the eruption pattern of teeth, treating decayed teeth and gum disease, extracting teeth with forceps, and using wires to stabilize loose teeth and fractured jaws.
But the people who lived in what we now call Italy seemed to be particularly sophisticated in dental treatment and repair. Back in 166-201 AD the Etruscans were replacing lost teeth with gold crowns and fixed bridgework, using human or animal teeth in partial dentures held together by gold bands. Like today’s gleaming, perfect celebrity smiles, gold restorative dental work was used to display wealth and status.
Medical researchers believe that the modern age is a terrible time to be a tooth. Debbie Guatelli-Steinberg, a professor of anthropology at The Ohio State University, author of “What Teeth Reveal About Human Evolution” (Cambridge University Press, 2016) says that we should all be very thankful for modern dentistry. Our teeth are living unnatural lives, and if it wasn’t for skilled dentists many of us would probably be experiencing serious health problems.
In her book, Guatelli-Steinberg noted that 99 percent of humans’ evolutionary history was spent eating foods that were hunted or gathered. Our current diets of soft, processed and sugary foods are nothing like the diets for which our teeth are adapted.
“Problems like cavities and plaque buildup have been magnified tremendously in humans today,” she said. “Natural selection has not prepared us well for the kinds of food we eat today.”
What to do? Make healthy eating decisions, brush and floss twice a day, and see your dentist regularly. If budget doesn’t allow for dental checkups and care, consider getting a dental savings plan. With discounts of 10%-60% on dental procedures, you can afford the quality dental care that you need to keep your teeth healthy.