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Going to The Caveman Dentist Was Probably a Nightmare

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If you think your experience with the dentist is scary, just think about how bad the caveman dentist’s office would have been. There’d be no painkillers, no drills, and the fillings would be made from tar and plant fibers. And god, what would the awkward small talk be like?

Scientists found 13000-year-old human teeth in a mountainous part of Tuscany, Italy—but someone had clearly been messing with these chompers. Through microscopy, it was clear they had been modified in some way, with chipping and residues of unnatural plant fibers and hairs on the inside of the teeth. They may have come from someone who’d visited the prehistoric dentist.


The teeth were canines and incisors, and the analysis consisted of an array of tools you’d probably prefer your dentist not use, like scanning electron microscopes, microCT scanners (which are basically lab versions of hospital CAT scanners) and other imaging techniques. The researchers radiocarbon dated the teeth, meaning they looked at the amounts of trace radioactive carbon to see how old they were. And using their microscopes, they identified the fibers inside the teeth as probably being put there while the caveperson was still alive.


“The internal surface modifications to the pulp cavities, in addition to the presence of bitumen and organic fibers, is an unusual occurrence among Late Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherer,” or the late stone age, the authors write in the paper published last month in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, “that begs further explanation.”

So, was this therapeutic dentistry? Maybe not—after all, lots of these neolithic groups modified their teeth for non-health related reasons, write the authors. And there could be lots of ways chipping ends up on teeth. But the presence of bitumen, a sort of natural tar and antiseptic, indicated to the scientists that the gunk stuffing might have been medicinal.

And if it was medicinal, it would probably be the earliest account of tooth filling for therapeutic purposes by a longshot, the authors say. General tooth modifications had probably been around for a thousand years prior to these fillings, though, reports New Scientist.


Just be glad that your trips to the dentist don’t require someone chipping away at the inside of your teeth and stuffing tar into the unmedicated hole.

[The Journal of Physical Anthropology via New Scientist]