Tracing history through teeth – Michael Sultan Endocare

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  Posted by: The Probe      7th June 2019

I’m always astounded by the clues that teeth can provide us with when it comes to painting a story of the past. The news is constantly filled with interesting tales of how researchers have used teeth to predict the lifestyles, eating habits and even professions of people who lived hundreds, if not thousands of years ago, and this is something that continually brings to light new evidence about the lives we once led.

It was only fairly recently that, when browsing through the news as always, I stumbled upon a fascinating video presented by the Independent revealing evidence that Neanderthal man had some concept of dentistry.[i]

In many ways this makes sense – if an individual is experiencing tooth pain (in this case, it appears that the Neanderthal in question had an impacted molar) it is a natural response that they would try to ease this pain. But really, this is something that is unique to humanity as a whole.

Animals rarely show any signs of dental pain, and even if they are in agony they do not make any effort to try and stop this pain themselves. Whether this is a disconnect in logic or simply that they lack the dexterity to use tools and identify the source of their dental pain, is most likely to be species specific. There’s also always the fact that many animals can simply regrow their teeth in the event of them becoming diseased or damaged.

However, even our closest ancestors, primates, have not been observed trying to treat their own dental pain, and chimpanzees, gorillas and other simian species in captivity or in reserves need to rely on human dentists to sort out any dental problems they may have.[ii]

So what made this case with the Neanderthal so interesting? Evidence on their teeth suggests that they had tried to treat their own impacted molar, possibly with dried grass or using bones to scratch away at the pain. There’s also the possibility that this attempt at treatment was made by another Neanderthal trying to help – indicating that the foundation of dentistry and the understanding of oral pain is at least thousands of years old.

Other interesting finds have also made recent headlines regarding history and teeth. It’s possible that you may have seen a number of articles circulating earlier this year describing a female skeleton that was found to have lapis lazuli in its teeth – a rare semi-precious stone pigment that was traditionally used to create blue paint.[iii]This finding helped to broaden our understanding of the roles of women in mediaeval times. A number of possibilities were offered as to why the pigment may have been found in her tartar, ranging from her taking the semi precious stone as a powdered medicine to her possible involvement in helping with the preparation of blue paint.

However, one of the most compelling arguments is that the lady in question was actually involved in the illustration of books with paint herself – something that was previously thought to be solely within the responsibilities of men. Due to the location of the pigment and the fact that this specific blue paint was likely imported, the evidence leads to her as an active worker in the arts, which has huge historical implications.

Another, more recent, historical find gives us insight into the Irish potato famine. Analysis was carried out on 363 skeletons of those that had died in the famine, revealing that they were all heavy smokers, and this was most likely the cause of their terrible oral health.[iv]This only goes to substantiate what we know about smoking today, and provides more evidence that tobacco products are causing our mouths lasting damage.

So what do these findings mean for us now? By looking closer at the teeth of our forbearers we can have a better idea of our past, helping to inspire future study and research. It also brings to question – what will our far future ancestors think of our teeth? We may not be able to predict what will come to pass, but it’s likely that our modern mouths, filled with restorations and appliances, will give future archaeologists the clues they need to see how far we have progressed with dentistry, even if all digital, physical and other data is lost.

This just goes to show that our teeth are so important – and their use extends so beyond our own lifetimes. After all, they can hold our stories for millennia, and who isn’t interested in that?


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[i]The Independent. Neanderthals Attempted Dentistry 130,000 Years Ago, Believe Scientists. Link:[Last accessed March 19].

[ii]Gorilla Doctors. Baboon and Chimpanzee Receive Pain-Relieving Dental Work in Lwiro. Link: [Last accessed March 19].

[iii]Phys.Org. We Found Lapis Lazuli Hidden in Ancient Teeth – Revealing the Forgotten Role of Women in Medieval Arts. Link:[Last accessed March 19].

[iv]Science Daily. Irish Famine Victims’ Heavy Smoking Led to Dental Decay, New Research Reveals.

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