Scared of the dentist? Be glad you don’t live in the Ice Age. A pair of 13,000-year-old front teeth found in Italy contain the earliest known use of fillings – made out of bitumen.
The teeth, two upper central incisors belonging to one person, were discovered in northern Italy. Each tooth has a large hole in the incisor’s surface that extends down into the pulp chamber deep in the tooth.
Stephano Benazzi, an archaeologist at the University of Bologna said: “It is quite unusual, not something you see in normal teeth”. Benazzi and his team used a variety of microscopic techniques to get a close look at the inside of the holes, and found a series of tiny horizontal marks on the walls that suggest they were cavities that had been drilled out and enlarged, likely by tiny stone tools.
The holes contain traces of bitumen, with plant fibres and hairs embedded in it, which Benazzi thinks are evidence of prehistoric fillings. While the purpose of the plants and hairs is unknown, it appears that they were added to the cavity at the same time as the drilling, so are not simply the remains of food eaten later.
The Paleolithic dentist would have drilled out the cavities and filled the holes with bitumen to reduce pain and to keep food out of the pulp chamber, just like in modern dentistry, says Benazzi.
These teeth show that humans had developed therapeutic dental practices thousands of years before we developed the systematic production of foods such as cereals and honey.