Root canals sucked even worse back then

Via our newsline we see that Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature has a paper out which indicates that dentistry may be one of the world’s oldest professions. The paper, which has an Italian as the lead author, is titled Early Neolithic Tradition of Dentistry (paid subscription required). Now when we are old uncles/aunties we can brag to our children that South Asians invented denistry also.

Proving prehistoric man’s ingenuity and ability to withstand and inflict excruciating pain, researchers have found that dental drilling dates back 9,000 years.

Primitive dentists drilled nearly perfect holes into live but undoubtedly unhappy patients between 5500 B.C. and 7000 B.C., an article in Thursday’s journal Nature reports. Researchers carbon-dated at least nine skulls with 11 drill holes found in a Pakistan graveyard.

That means dentistry is at least 4,000 years older than first thought — and far older than the useful invention of anesthesia.

This was no mere tooth tinkering. The drilled teeth found in the graveyard were hard-to-reach molars. And in at least one instance, the ancient dentist managed to drill a hole in the inside back end of a tooth, boring out toward the front of the mouth. [Link]


p>My whole life I had looked down on people with multiple cavities because I had never had one. I usually snubbed these “enamelly challenged” because I saw them as being weak and unable to resist candy. I got my just desserts though. Last year I got my first (and I swear it will be my last) cavity. By the time the doctor was done she had pulled two of my innocent teeth just to get to the offending tooth which she then reconstructed with a crown. My wisdom teeth surgery was even worse (warning: NSDL). Apparently they were like upside down. I can’t even begin to imagine how people were able to withstand the pain in the Neolithic.

The site of Mehrgarh in Baluchistan lies along the principal route connecting Afghanistan to the Indus valley. After intermittent occupations by hunter-gatherers, Mehrgarh’s subsistence economy shifted to the cultivation of barley and wheat, cotton domestication and cattle breeding. Diachronic archaeological evidence records an increasingly rich cultural life, with technological sophistication based on diverse raw materials. Excavation of the Neolithic cemetery known as MR3 yielded more than 300 graves created over a 1,500-year time span…

Whatever the purpose, tooth drilling on individuals buried at MR3 continued for about 1,500 years, indicating that dental manipulation was a persistent custom. After 6,500 yr BP, the practice must have ceased, as there is no evidence of tooth drilling from the subsequent MR2 Chalcolithic cemetery, despite the continuation of poor dental health. [Link]

Teeth are the greatest find in any paleontological/archeological expedition. Measuring istope ratios can even tell you what the people ate. I keep two of my old teeth on my desk at home. This is just in case my body is lost during some adventure and someone wants to learn about my lifestyle when I was still alive.

8 thoughts on “Root canals sucked even worse back then

  1. until 100 years ago medicine & dentistry wasn’t much more effective (and perhaps less so because of infection) shamanistic spells. i think these practices need to be looked at less from a functional than a ritualistic lens, that is, it isn’t about what it does to the body, but how it makes one feel (as most of medicine was for recorded history as well).

  2. I cannot believe I just saw your bloody tooth.

    That’s what I get for being curious about “I wonder what NSDL stands for?”. Click. Ugh.

  3. That’s what I get for being curious about “I wonder what NSDL stands for?”. Click. Ugh.


  4. I cannot believe I just saw your bloody tooth. That’s what I get for being curious about “I wonder what NSDL stands for?”. Click. Ugh.

    lmao! i hate to think of what will become of my and my widom teeth this coming may. thank god for technology, that’s all i can say!

  5. I, too, succumbed to the “what does NSDL mean?” trick. Thank god (or whoever) for anaesthesia.

  6. For the past 3 years or so I have had trouble with the molar and the attendant root canal work…my daughter sent me the link to your post of the past…does it make me feel better? No, it makes me feel as if it was I who has been having root canal work since the ancient Paleolithic or whatever era! 😉

  7. The thing to note is that this is 4,500 years before the height of the ancient Indus Valley civilization. It is not so surprising though, if we also consider that in the neighboring Rohri Hills large-scale flint mining was underway for tens of thousands of years before dentistry in Mehrgarh. A complex pre-historic culture flourished in the subcontinent long before the first cities, which must have sprung from a complex social and cultural system.