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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 June 2006, 13:21 GMT 14:21 UK
'Fang' dentures link to skeleton
Jaguar mother and cub, AP
Jaguars were revered by the ancient Maya
A man whose 4,500-year-old bones were found in Mexico may have worn ceremonial dentures made from jaguar or wolf fangs, an archaeologist claims.

The find is said to represent one of the earliest examples of dentistry in the Americas.

The man's remains were found in volcanic ash beneath a cliff painted with ancient rock art in a remote mountain region of western Mexico.

Many pre-Hispanic Mexican cultures revered wild animals like jaguars.

The Maya, for example, believed the big cat ruled the underworld and used jaguar pelts in religious ceremonies.

The man was between 28 and 32 years old and stood about 1.55m (5ft 1in) tall, researchers said.

Special status

James Chatters, an archaeologist and palaeontologist with Amec Earth and Environmental and a member of the research team, said the man's upper and front teeth had been removed - possibly to insert a ceremonial denture made from the palate of a wolf or a jaguar.

"Such a denture might be something like the mouthparts of a predatory animal or some fierce animal of some sort," he said.

It was also possible the man's teeth had been cut off for cosmetic reasons, or to indicate special status, perhaps as a priest or shaman, Dr Chatters said.

He would not have been able to bite with his front teeth but appears to have been well-fed. An examination of the body indicates he did not do hard work, perhaps having been an important person in the society.

Probable cause?

The man may have died from an infection related to his dental work, Dr Chatters explained.

"They cut his teeth off right down to gum and exposed the pulp cavity, and he had two abscesses in his mouth at the time he died. Blood poisoning is a possibility there," he said.

Tricia Gabany Guerrero, a researcher from the University of Connecticut, who is heading the team working at the burial site, said the team was led to the remote spot by elders from the Purepecha Indian group that now lives in the area.

The cliff walls at the site are painted with designs that include calendar symbols, linking the little-studied area to Mexico's more famous cultures, like the Aztecs and Maya.

Dr Chatters was the first archaeologist called in to examine the remains now known as Kennewick Man, a 9,300-year-old skeleton found on the banks of the Columbia River in Washington State, US.

This find, one of the most complete ancient skeletons, was the subject of a seven-and-a-half year long legal battle between Native American tribes who wanted to rebury the remains and scientists who wanted to study them.

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