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Archaeology

The Fine Art of Neolithic Dentistry

The very idea of prehistoric dentistry is a jaw-dropping thought, inciting images of brutes, bludgeons, and gory gums. But nothing could be further from the tooth, according to evidence uncovered at a Neolithic burial site in Pakistan.

In the Pakistani province of Baluchistan lies the archaeological site of Mehrgarh, where one of the world's earliest farming communities evolved some 9000 years ago from an initial occupation by hunter-gatherers. During almost 30 years of excavations, the site has yielded evidence of a Neolithic society in constant cultural and economic development, producing crops of cereals and cotton, rearing cattle, and empowered with relatively sophisticated technological skills.

An international team of paleo-anthropologists working under the joint coordination of the Musée Guimet in Paris and CNRS1 has now uncovered in these burial grounds evidence of the earliest known practice of dentistry; minute holes bored into the teeth of successive generations over a period dating between 9000 and 7500 years ago.2

 

dentier reconstruit

© R. Macchiarelli (Poitiers) & L. Bondioli (Rome)

The drilling apparatus as reconstructed by the scientists.


Roberto Macchiarelli, professor of human paleontology at the University of Poitiers in northwestern France, describes the initial discovery on teeth from two adult skulls, as “pure chance.” “We were first baffled and considered every possible reason for them being there.”

Macchiarelli's team searched the burial site for more examples and discovered a total of eleven drilled teeth from nine adults, including both males and females. The angled precision holes vary in depth between 0.5 and 3.5 millimeters, with diameters of between 1.3 and 3.2 millimeters. The teeth surfaces showed subsequent smoothing caused by chewing, which proves that this drilling was performed on living people. The mystery began to lift when it was found that the dental pin holes precisely matched the fine points of certain drill heads made from flint recovered elsewhere at the site. The drill heads were likely used to craft jewelry beads from turquoise, lapis lazuli, shell, and bone. However, any decorative reason for the dental drilling was immediately discounted because the teeth were all in the jawbone region hidden behind the cheek.

A scanning electron microscope revealed concentric ridges in the holes formed by the tools. Macchiarelli and his colleagues reconstructed a flint-tipped bow drill as the Neolithic craftsmen would have used and established that it could indeed pierce identical holes through human enamel.

“The holes would have been made within a few dozen seconds and the heat would have been intense, causing enormous pain,” says Macchiarelli. “They could have been made to plug rotting teeth, such as with herbal remedies, or in the belief that the holes evacuated a source of ills.” Some of the drilled teeth showed cavities, and at least one example shows a micro-tool was used to further smooth the cavity wall.

No evidence of the practice has been found in a separate burial ground at the site where remains date back to 6500 years, a fact which Macchiarelli believes may be due to the loss of precision stone-crafting skills.

 

Graham Tearse

Notes :

1. Laboratoire de géobiologie, biochronologie et paléontologie humaine (CNRS / Université de Poitiers joint lab).
2. A. Coppa et al., “Early Neolithic tradition of dentistry,” Nature. 440: 755-756. 2006.

Contacts :

Roberto Macchiarelli
Roberto.macchiarelli@univ-poitiers.fr


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