Although it may hard to imagine anything that predates your gray-haired, stoop-backed dentist, the truth will surprise you. Many of the procedures around today have their origins in ancient and primitive societies.
Cavities and Decay
The fear of visiting the dentist and getting a cavity filled is not exclusive to the twentieth century and beyond. It’s impossible to tell how far dental anxiety goes back, but we can assume it dates to at least between 7000 and 5500 B.C.—the date of the first dentist’s drill found in Pakistan. Unfortunately for the people who lived back then, anesthesia is exclusive to our modern era.
Some primitive dentists left the drilled holes open (we presume, since archeologists have found several teeth with perfectly drilled, open holes that show signs of smoothing). Others filled their patients’ cavities with substances like beeswax.
According to the Egyptian papyrus Ebers, the Egyptians used several different recipes for dental care. One such recipe was a mixture of ground barley, honey, and yellow ochre. According to the papyrus, this mixture was used to pack loose teeth and prevent them from falling out.
If a tooth did fall out, not to worry—they had solutions for that as well. One such method was a sort of ancient dental bridge, where the dentist would reattach lost teeth by wiring them to the surrounding teeth. It is unclear, however, if this was done while a patient was alive, or if it was part of the post-mortem preparation process.
Not even dental implants are a new idea in dentistry. Although the implants have definitely been perfected within the last 100 years, they existed as early as 400 B.C. People in areas such as Egypt, South America, and China used pieces of stone, ivory, wood, seashells, animal teeth, cadaver teeth, and gold to fill in the gaps.
Archeologists found an iron pin in a skeleton’s jawbone in France. The skeleton was about 2,300 years old, and the iron pin was covered in calculus—indicating that the implant had stayed in place in the patient’s mouth for some time before his death.
Think those sparkly diamond, chrome, and gold Grillz are just for rich celebrities? Think again. Rich Mayans are the trend-setter here, with their jewel-encrusted pearly-whites dating back to 700-900 A.D. The ancient people would chip into the outer layer of their teeth and insert precious jewels including gold, jadeite, and turquoise.
One ancient technique is still around today in its original form. It is called “oil pulling” and comes from a branch of Ayurveda medicine (a holistic system of medicine that evolved in India 3000-5000 years ago). The technique consists of swishing a small amount of oil (an oil like coconut oil, sunflower oil, etc.) for anywhere from 5-20 minutes.
The idea is that the oil draws out toxins, bacteria, microbials, and other harmful substances. People still swear by the practice today, but the ADA points out that there’s very little scientific research to back up its effectiveness.
Our century can’t even claim tooth whitening as a dental procedure unique to this modern era. It too was around as early as the Roman times. The Romans apparently used human urine to bleach their pearly whites. The ammonia in the urine was what did the trick. The method is definitely not one you’d see used at a professional office like SmithFamilyDental.com, but it shows that early people put a lot of thought into the appearance of their teeth—like we do today.
One important thing to remember when talking about prehistoric times is that archeologists have to make conclusions based off of little evidence—they make a best guess. Who knows if tooth-drilling was really a spiritual ceremony meant to release evil spirits? Although we can’t know the exact reason for these procedures, we can be sure of one thing—they must have hurt!