Paleolithic Humans Got Dental Fillings, And They Weren't Pretty

Think a modern trip to the dentist is bad? Try one 13,000 years ago, where your filling contained the same material that we now use to pave roads—along with some hair and vegetable fibers. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Related: Neanderthals Treated Pain With A Form Of Aspirin

The lower right third molar (RM3) of the Late Upper Palaeolithic specimen known as Villabruna.

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Back in 2015, Stefano Benazzi, an archaeologist at the University of Bologna, and a team of researchers published a paper on what they believed to be the earliest evidence of dentistry: tiny scratches from a flint tool made on a molar tooth dating back 14,000 years. In 2016, Benazzi and his team published another study that did that one better: newly discovered remains—these ones about a thousand years newer than the last—showed signs of a cavity filling. That establishes that these ancient people weren't just dabbling in dentistry—they were going all in and tackling cavities, too.

Related: Stricken With Wanderlust? You've Got Something In Common With Early Humans.

"It is quite unusual, not something you see in normal teeth," Benazzi told New Scientist. The teeth, which were upper central incisors (or buckteeth), had been drilled with sharp rocks and packed with fillings. The fillings were made with tar-like bitumen, a material that today is used mostly to pave roads, along with hair and vegetable fibers.

Related: You're Probably Part Neanderthal

Which Came First, The Carbs Or The Cavities?

But before you feel too smug about the benefits of modern dentistry, consider this: before the Upper Paleolithic era in which the person lived, cavities were a lot more rare. Not long after this period, humans began growing grains, and the sudden uptick in carbs became a feeding frenzy for the bacteria in our mouth. That, in turn, may have contributed to the "dawn of dentistry."

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Watch And Learn: Our Favorite Content About Ancient Teeth

The Hidden History Of Dentistry

Key Facts In This Video

  1. Evidence of the first dentistry practices—holes drilled into teeth—has been dated back to 7000 BC. 00:59

  2. The patron saint of dentistry is Apollonia, who was allegedly martyred by having all of her teeth forcibly removed. 05:19

  3. George Washington's famous dentures were not made of wood. They were made from a mix of his own teeth, cow's teeth, and hippopotamus ivory. 10:25

Why Don't We Need Our Wisdom Teeth Anymore?

How Do Cavities Work?

Key Facts In This Video

  1. Teeth are made of three main parts: enamel, dentin, and the blood supply and nerve. 00:18

  2. Certain kinds of bacteria produce acid which eat through the enamel of teeth and create a cavity. 00:46

  3. When your cavity eats all the way down to your nerve, a root canal is required. 01:06

Written by Stephanie Bucklin April 24, 2017

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