Ancient Tooth Provides Evidence of Human Dentistry 6,500 Years Ago

An Italian-Aussie team of archaeologists has unearthed new evidence of ancient dentistry in the form of a 6,500-year-old human jaw bone with a tooth showing traces of beeswax filling.

Left: a 6,500-year-old human jaw found in a karstic cave in southern Slovenia, scale bar – 10 mm. Right: a microphotograph of the tooth crown in occlusal view with indication of the surface covered by beeswax – within the yellow dotted line, scale bar – 2 mm (Bernardini F et al)

The study, reported in the journal PloS-ONE, suggests that beeswax was applied around the time of the individual’s death, but cannot confirm whether it was shortly before or after.

If it was before death, researchers say that it was likely intended to reduce pain and sensitivity from a vertical crack in the enamel and dentin layers of the tooth.

“The severe wear of the tooth is probably also due to its use in non-alimentary activities, possibly such as weaving, generally performed by Neolithic females,” said study co-author Prof Claudio Tuniz, visiting professorial fellow with the University of Wollongong’s Center for Archaeological Science, Australia.

Evidence of prehistoric dentistry is sparse, so this new specimen, found in Slovenia near Trieste, may help provide insight into early dental practices.

“This finding is perhaps the most ancient evidence of pre-historic dentistry in Europe and the earliest known direct example of therapeutic-palliative dental filling so far”, said Dr Federico Bernardini of the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics in Italy.

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Bibliographic information: Bernardini F et al. 2012. Beeswax as Dental Filling on a Neolithic Human Tooth. PLoS ONE 7 (9): e44904; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0044904