Dentistry in the Stone Age

The dawn of dentistry was as early as 9,000 years ago, according to findings reported in a recent issue of Nature, a scientific review.

At least nine people living in a Neolithic village in western Pakistan had holes drilled into their molars during their lifetimes. Researchers believe the holes were not made for aesthetic reasons because of their hard to reach position in the mouth on erosion-prone surfaces of the teeth.

"This is certainly the first case of drilling a person's teeth," said David Frayer, professor of anthropology at the University of Kansas and lead author of the report. "But even more significant, this practice lasted some 1,500 years and was a tradition at this site. It wasn't just a sporadic event."

Both Dr. Frayer and Dr. Roberto Macchiarelli, a professor of paleoanthropology at the University of Poitiers, France and the report's lead anthropological researcher, think the drilling was likely done to reduce the pain of cavities. Four of the teeth showed signs of decay associated with the drilled hole.

The research team said close examination of the teeth showed the drill was "surprisingly effective" at removing decayed dental tissue. They believe that a small bow was used to drive the flint drill tips into the patients' teeth and probably evolved from intricate ornamental bead drilling. Beads of imported lapis lazuli, turquoise and carnelian were found at the site with holes even smaller than the ones in the nine individuals. Finely tipped drill heads were discovered among the beads.

The dental patients of Mehrgarh are rare in the anthropological record, according to Dr. Macchiarelli, who noted that similar dental work does not recur until around 1100 A.D. among the Anasazi Indians of the southwest United States and around 1500 A.D. in Europe.

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