Evidence of dental drilling on a 14,000-year-old molar has revealed that the practice is far older than was previously thought.
The find was made on a tooth from a 25-year-old male skeleton which was uncovered from a rock shelter in northern Italy in 1988 – scientists had studied the specimen for decades without realising the holes in the man’s lower right third molar were more than just a bad cavity.
But when a team of researchers finally decided to test the strange striations and chipping on the ancient enamel of the partially rotten tooth they discovered they were made by pointed flint tools that were used to probe and scrape away at the decayed area.
The fact that the chipped area was worn out confirmed that the scratches were made while the tooth’s owner was still alive and, given the lack of anaesthetic available, in agony during the procedure which scraped the infection away piecemeal.
The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports this month and research co-ordinator Stefano Benazzi from the University of Bologna said: “The discovery shows that the man from the end of the Palaeolithic, or early Stone Age, period was aware of the damaging nature of an infected cavity and of the need to intervene with microlithic tools to remove the infection.”
Benazzi believes drilling evolved from toothpicking, because archaeological digs have uncovered ancient toothpicks made of bone and wood. It could have been a natural progression for the molar’s ancient owner to go from picking bits of food from his teeth to removing decay.
The oldest previous evidence of dental drilling was found in a 9,000-year-old graveyard in Pakistan. A team of paleontologists working in Mehgarh in the country’s Baluchistan province in 2006 said the tool was “surprisingly effective” at removing rotting dental tissue and found a total of eleven drilled crowns, with one showing evidence of a complex procedure involving tooth enamel removal followed by carving of the cavity wall.
Fillings weren’t used until about 6,500 years ago, when, according to a 2012 study, beeswax was used to fill a Neolithic tooth in Slovenia.