Monday, 24 September 2012

Beeswax and broken teeth...

Going to the dentist for a filling is generally considered to be a modern invention - but a 6500 year old jaw fragment found in Slovenia may be about to change that idea.

The unassuming fragment of mandible was excavated from a cave in the early 20th century, catalogued and filed away in an Italian museum until it was reinvestigated by Claudio Tuniz and Federico Bernardini of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, who were using samples from the museum to test new x-ray imaging techniques. Once the mandible fragment had been scanned however, an unusual substance was noticed adhering to the surface of a canine tooth.

The Lonche Jaw; part of the lower left dental arcade
belonging to a 6500 year old human. Scale bar 10mm.
Photo from doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044904.g001
High resolution scans revealed a long vertical crack in the tooth and an exposed area of dentine - the material that sits beneath enamel in the tooth - with this other substance covering the occlusal (biting) surface of the tooth and filling the crack.

Further tests of the filling material discovered that it was beeswax, and subsequent radiocarbon dating found that it was contemporary with the mandible. Although it is possible that the beeswax was applied just after death as part of a ritual, it seems likely that the wax was acting as a filling to numb dental pain. If this is the case, it represents one of the earliest examples of dental-palliative care. Beeswax, which can have anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties was known and used by prehistoric populations, and it is not inconceivable that this kind of dental care was at least sporadically practised.

It is interesting to wonder about how many more examples of such dental care exist in museums across the globe - after all, this particular mandible fragment lay filed away for 101 years before the beeswax addition was noticed...

Bernardini et al  2012 'Beeswax as Dental Filling on a Neolithic Human Tooth' in PLOS ONE.
Barras, C 2012 'Oldest dental filling is found in a Stone Age tooth' in New Scientist Online