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Wednesday, 11 April, 2001, 23:08 GMT 00:08 UK
Prehistoric dentistry evidence found
An example of modern-day dental work
An example of modern-day dental work
Tiny holes found in teeth suggest even prehistoric man may have had to fear the dentist's drill.

Remains found at Mehrgarh, Baluchistan, part of what is now Pakistan, show dental decay may have been treated 8,000-9,000 years ago.

It is some of the earliest evidence of dentistry.

Archaeologists discovered perfect tiny holes in two molar teeth from the remains of different men.


It is very tantalising to think they had such knowledge of health and cavities and medicine to do this

Professor Andrea Cucina,
University of Missouri-Columbia
The people of that time and area were extremely sophisticated.

They cultivated crops and made intricate jewellery from shells, amethysts and turquoise.

But before this discovery was made, no one was aware they also had dentistry skills.

Andrea Cucina, from the University of Missouri-Columbia made the discovery last year when he was cleaning the teeth from one of the men.

He and colleagues ruled out other possibilities including dental decoration such as tooth sharpening.

As they were still attached to the jaw, the teeth were not used as part of a necklace.

The teeth were also rounded from chewing, and the scientists say hollowing out the teeth does not appear to have been part of the society's funeral rites.

Concentric grooves

Under a microscope, the scientists discovered the holes were too perfectly round to have been caused by bacteria.

But they did see concentric grooves left by what they think was a drill with a tiny stone bit.

Although no drill has been found, archaeologists have discovered beads of the same 2.5mm diameter as the holes found in the teeth, indicating the people did have the capacity to do delicate work.

The physical anthropologist who carried out the examinations, Professor Andrea Cucina said the work could have been done to treat tooth decay, and suggested some plant or other material, which would have since decayed, could have been inserted into the hole.

He said: "At this point we can't be certain, but it is very tantalising to think they had such knowledge of health and cavities and medicine to do this."

He told BBC News Online: "The more I look at the teeth and the more I talk with other people who are dealing with dental examination, the more I'm convinced they were trying to reduce pain.

"We know that in that population, they used to scratch their gums to relieve itching and inflammation," something he said was still used in some societies today.

'Surprising'

A spokesman for the British Dental Association said dentistry using stone tools would have been possible but "surprising" given that operative conservative dentistry did not emerge until much later.

He said previous evidence of early dentistry had been traced back 6,000 years to China and India where false teeth were used, but he added there was no sign then of any method of conserving the teeth, such as drilling and filling.

In 3000 BC, the Egyptians are known to have been skilled and knowledgeable dentists, and able to drill teeth and jaws to relieve pain.

Grains of salt were also used as a remedy for tooth decay.

The Mayans in Mexico used stone drills, made from obsidian or jade, on "live" teeth in the ninth century AD, though that was mainly for decorative and ceremonial, rather than dentistry purposes, said the BDA spokesman.

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