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Incredible Ways That Ancient People Treated Cavities

Did you know that people have been drilling decayed teeth for thousands of years?

Archeologists have found proof that people were treating cavities long before the wheel was invented. Some of the tools and methods were creative and efficient, others must have been incredibly painful.

Read on to learn about some interesting, memorable treatments.

How Ancient Civilizations Treated Tooth Decay

We have known for a long time that ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans drilled and cleaned decayed teeth. Recently, archeologists have found evidence that many prehistoric civilizations also had methods to deal with cavities, and some even used advanced tools that did an excellent job of cleaning out the infected tooth.

Some of the earliest drills were bow drills like the one shown below. 9,000 year old teeth found in Pakistan showed pits that were drilled with this type of tool (1). Amazingly, researchers could create a hole in around 1 minute with a bow drill! However, they were not drilling on living people. So, unless an early dentist was extremely skilled and the patient held very still, it probably took quite a bit longer to drill the tooth of a live, squirming human.

University of Poitiers, France

Reproduction of a tooth drill.

Before the bow drill, people used tools shaped into tiny blades to scrape out the rotten areas. Imagine taking a little tiny rock, chipping and sanding it down until it had sharp edges and a pointy sharp tip, then digging out a painful, decayed area of your tooth. This is precisely what many early humans did to treat cavities. Hopefully, they also knew about some strong, natural painkillers!

Early people in the Americas also drilled teeth. Skeletons from two different pre-Hispanic societies in Peru have the same type of holes as those seen in the teeth from Pakistan (2). Peruvian patients may have been lucky enough to receive a local anesthetic to dull the pain. Their societies had extensive knowledge of traditional medicine and used coca leaves and other plants as pain relievers. This would have been very helpful for these patients because the teeth appear to have been scraped with a micro-tool after being drilled.

What about fillings?

There is not much evidence that a drilled tooth also received a filling, but that could simply be due to the fact that the materials in the filling degraded over the thousands of years since the person lived. One example of a filling was found in a person who lived around 6,500 years ago that had a cracked tooth filled with beeswax (3). Although this tooth was simply cracked and does not show any signs that a cavity was cleaned out, beeswax would have been an excellent choice to fill a damaged tooth and protect the tender pulp inside.

This copper-colored beeswax filling from 6,500 years ago is one of the earliest
 examples of fillings that exists today. Credit: Claudio Tuniz

Other cultures have also used various substances to fill broken or decayed teeth. Egyptians used a mixture of ground barley, honey, and yellow ochre (an antiseptic agent). Over 2,000 years ago, Chinese people had more advanced methods and used silver amalgam as fillings.

Ancient Dental Hygiene

Even thousands of years ago people realized that it was important to keep teeth clean. Ancient teeth have been found with wearing patterns that were probably made from using toothpicks. Many different people groups frayed the ends of twigs to create toothbrushes. The Chinese chewed on aromatic tree twigs to freshen breath and invented the first known toothbrushes. These toothbrushes had handles of bone or bamboo, with bristles from pig necks.

Some cultures used relatively simple ingredients for toothpaste such as charcoal, ashes, walnut shells, or lemon juice. Others created a more complex formula. Egyptians blended rock salt, mint, dried iris flower, and pepper. Greeks and Romans often used crushed bones, oyster shells, and flavoring. Over the millennia, Ancient Chinese people used salt and many different herbs, including ginseng and mint.

We are fortunate to have modern methods to treat tooth decay and minimize discomfort while receiving treatment. Of course, it is far better to keep your teeth healthy and free of decay. We are here to help your children keep their teeth as healthy as possible and are glad to have the opportunity to help your family learn about the best ways to achieve this goal. In the event that your child does need tooth restoration, we have many techniques to help them remain calm and feel safe.

At Jungle Roots Children’s Dentistry & Orthodontics, we strive to provide the highest comprehensive pediatric and orthodontic dental care in a unique, fun-filled environment staffed by a team of caring, energetic professionals. We believe the establishment of a “dental home” at an early age is the key to a lifetime of positive visits to the dentist.

Call Us - (480) 759-1119

  1. Oxilia, G., Peresani, M., Romandini, M. et al. Earliest evidence of dental caries manipulation in the Late Upper Palaeolithic. Sci Rep 5, 12150 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep12150
  2. Ortiz A, Torres Pino EC, Orellana González E. First evidence of pre-Hispanic dentistry in South America - Insights from Cusco, Peru. Homo. 2016;67(2):100-109. doi:10.1016/j.jchb.2015.09.006
  3. Bernardini F, Tuniz C, Coppa A, Mancini L, Dreossi D, et al. (2012) Beeswax as Dental Filling on a Neolithic Human Tooth. PLOS ONE 7(9): e44904. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0044904
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