9,000-year-old drilled teeth are work of stone age dentists

Researchers excavating a Stone Age graveyard found a total of 11 teeth that had been drilled, including one that had apparently undergone a complex procedure to hollow out a cavity deep inside the tooth. The discovery suggests a high level of technological sophistication, though the procedure, which involved drills tipped with shards of flint, could hardly have been a painless affair. “The finding provides clear and compelling evidence that earlier people had knowledge of manipulation of dental hard tissues in living people,” said Clark Spencer Larsen, an anthropologist at Ohio State University in Columbus, who was not part of the excavation.

“We think the drilling had medical reasons,” said Roberto Macchiarelli, a paleoanthropologist at the Université de Poitiers and lead author of the study. “While some teeth had been drilled more than once, four showed signs of decay … suggesting a possible therapeutic intervention.” The procedure could not have had an aesthetic purpose, since its results were not easily visible, he added. But the real motive is still uncertain. “The reason is difficult to ascertain,” said Jeffrey Schwartz, an anthropologist at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.

National Geographic
April 25, 2006

Original web page at National Geographic