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Oldest tooth filling was made by an Ice Age dentist in Italy

14:50, Tuesday, 11 April, 2017
Oldest tooth filling was made by an Ice Age dentist in Italy

Scared of the dentist? Be glad you don’t live in the Ice Age. A pair of 13,000-year-old front teeth found in Italy contain the earliest known use of fillings – made out of bitumen.

The teeth, two upper central incisors belonging to one person, were discovered at the Riparo Fredian site near Lucca in northern Italy.

Each tooth has a large hole in the incisor’s surface that extends down into the pulp chamber deep in the tooth. “It is quite unusual, not something you see in normal teeth,” says Stephano Benazzi, an archaeologist at the University of Bologna.

Benazzi and his team used a variety of microscopic techniques to get a close look at the inside of the holes, and found a series of tiny horizontal marks on the walls that suggest they were cavities that had been drilled out and enlarged, likely by tiny stone tools.

The markings were similar to those Benazzi and his colleagues found in teeth from another site in Italy, dated to 14,000 year ago, that they determined were the first known example of dentistry in humans.

But these new teeth also have a new dental innovation. The holes contain traces of bitumen, with plant fibres and hairs embedded in it, which Benazzi thinks are evidence of prehistoric fillings.

While the purpose of the plants and hairs is unknown, it appears that they were added to the cavity at the same time as the drilling, so are not simply the remains of food eaten later.

The Paleolithic dentist would have drilled out the cavities and filled the holes with bitumen to reduce pain and to keep food out of the pulp chamber, just like in modern dentistry, says Benazzi. Claudio Tuniz, an archaeologist at the University of Wollongong in Australia, says the bitumen, along with some medicinal plants, might have been used as an antiseptic, much as beeswax was used in other examples of prehistoric dentistry thousands of years later.

Tuniz says 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.

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