Getting dental treatments today can be uncomfortable and at times painful, but having tooth problems in the Ice Age could have been much worse.

Analysis of the oldest known example of tooth filling revealed that prehistoric dentists may have used stone tools to drill tooth cavities.

13,000-Year-Old Teeth With Dental Fillings

A pair of front teeth dating back to as early as 13,000 years ago revealed how ancient tooth fillings look like and how prehistoric humans came up with crude solutions to dental problems. The teeth belonged to a single person and were found at the Riparo Fredian site in Italy.

Each of the two upper central incisors has a large hole in the surface that extends deeper into the pulp chamber of the tooth.

Study researcher Stefano Benazzi, an archaeologist at the University of Bologna, and colleagues used residue analyses, microCT scans, and scanning electron microscopy to get a closer look at the inside of these holes. They found evidence suggesting that the cavities in the tooth were drilled out and enlarged by a pointed instrument, possibly a tiny stone tool, that scraped out decayed tissue.

The Neolithic dentist who performed the dental job did not settle to just removing the decayed tissue. Evidence showed that dark bits of bitumen, a kind of tar that Ice Age people used to waterproof pots and baskets, were also stuck to the walls of the cavity. The bitumen may have been used as an antiseptic or a filling to protect the tooth from infection.

Bits of plant fiber and hair were also stuck in the bitumen albeit researchers are not sure of their purpose. The plants and hairs though were added to the cavity at the same time these were drilled, which means these were not remains of food that were eaten later.

The teeth essentially went through the similar process used in modern dentistry which involves drilling out teeth cavities and filling them out.

Dentistry Before Agriculture Became Widespread

The researchers said it is possible that the holes were drilled for other reasons such as to insert jewelry, but the bitumen on the tooth hints the purpose of the procedure was to clean decayed matter from the teeth and replace this with something that can slow loss of tooth.

The researchers also noted that the person hails back to the time before agriculture became widespread, which means that the person who had these teeth lived before the time period when people started to eat foods that are high in carbohydrates such as grains.

The introduction of these food to the human diet led to widespread tooth problems specifically tooth decay. Dental issues occurred more frequently after humans started to cultivate grains.

"It appears that fundamental perceptions of biomedical knowledge and practice were in place long before the socioeconomic changes associated with the transition to food production in the Neolithic," the researchers wrote in their study.

The findings were published in journal American Journal of Physical Anthropology on March 27.

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