It’s hard to imagine a time when having such a thing as some simple cavities could lead to death, but it’s true. In fact, the ancient Greeks had so much pride around their ability to deal with pain, they’d rather suffer than have a tooth pulled, which sometimes led to horrendous infections and death. Fortunately, there were other civilizations which felt differently. And, while having dental work done wasn’t exactly like going to the spa, it was often very practical and life-saving. Let’s take a peek back into ancient times.
The First Dentistry
There’s actually evidence going back to 7000 BC in ancient Pakistan which shows the use of dental drills. These dentists drilled holes into live patients (think: no shots, no laughing gas, nothing!). Archeologists found that they used a small bow to push a flint tip into patients’ teeth and drill. This time of drilling probably began as drilling for ornamental beads.
Luca Bondioli / Pigorini Museum
A drilled molar crown from a Neolithic graveyard in Pakistan.
Two thousand years later in 5000 BC, an ancient Sumerian texts tells us about “tooth worms” which apparently caused tooth decay. They wriggled around causing pain, and when they rested, the pain would stop and damage would cease. This was not an anomaly. In fact, ancient India, Egypt, Japan, and China also had similar beliefs, and Homer even wrote about them as well. This belief was even held during the 1300’s AD by the famous dental surgeon Guy de Chauliac. They certainly were tenacious worms!
The First Dentist
In 2600 BC, Egypt had the honor of claiming a person who called himself “the greatest of those who deal with teeth, and of physicians.” This is Hesy-Re, an Egyptian scribe, and the first “dentist.”
Certainly the Egyptians had vast knowledge about the body. Through mummification, they learned much about anatomy and even wrote about surgery including drilling out cavities and tooth extraction. The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus even gives information about how to work with wounds in the mouth.
The First Prosthetics
The Etruscans(a pre-Roman civilization in Italy) actually made some basic leaps in dentistry which were beyond the purely functional. Because they traveled across the seas and traded with other civilizations, they were able to garner new knowledge about many things, including dentistry. They experimented with using gold to fill teeth. In one preserved corpse, you can see that gold was actually wrapped around the teeth and cemented in place. In addition, both human and animal teeth were used as the first prosthetics, beginning around 700 BC.
Greek and Roman Dentistry
Around 500-300 BC, both Hippocrates and Aristotle wrote about dentistry, including how teeth erupt, treatment of cavities, gum disease, extraction, and even an early form of orthodontics involving the use of wire to help secure loose teeth. At the same time, one ancient Greek mummy had such a mouth full of cavities that it caused a sinus infection which eventually killed him. Fortunately, there continued to be advances in dentistry, and in 100 BC, Celsus, a Roman medical writer, tells us about oral hygiene, more methods to stabilize teeth, as well as how to treat toothaches, teething pain, and jaw fractures. (Image: Ancient dentures from Wellcome Images)
As youcan see, the beginnings of dentistry were very humble. From drillings to extractions and prosthetics, we can be grateful that we have evolved to include those beginnings but improvemuch upon them. Next up: The Middle Ages and Renaissance, a fairly challenging time for those with tooth problems as quackery was rampant and definitely not regulated.