Ancient Gem-Studded Teeth Show Skill of Ancient Dentist

May 18, 2009

The glittering "grills" of some hip-hop stars aren't exactly unprecedented. Sophisticated dentistry allowed Native Americans to add bling to their teeth as far back as 2,500 years ago, a new study says.

Maya and other ancient peoples of southern North America went to "dentists"—among the earliest known—to beautify their chompers with notches, grooves, and semi-precious stones, according to a recent analysis of thousands of teeth examined from collections in Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (such as the skull, above, found in Chiapas, Mexico).

Scientists don't know the origin of most of the teeth in the collections, which belonged to people living throughout the region, called Mesoamerica, before the Spanish conquests of the 1500s.

But it's clear that people—mostly men—from nearly all walks of life opted for look, noted José Concepción Jiménez, an anthropologist at the Mexican institute that recently announced the findings.

"They were not marks of social class" but instead meant for pure decoration, he commented in an e-mail interview conducted in Spanish.

In fact, the royals of the day—such as the Red Queen, a Maya mummy found in a temple at Palenque in what is now Mexico—don't have teeth decorations, Jiménez said.

Other evidence of early Mesoamerican dentistry—including a person who had received a ceremonial denture—has also been found.

Knowledgeable Dentists

The early dentists used a drill-like device with a hard stone such as obsidian, which is capable of puncturing bone.

"It's possible some type of [herb based] anesthetic was applied prior to drilling to blunt any pain," Jiménez said.

The ornamental stones—including jade—were attached with an adhesive made out of natural resins, such as plant sap, which was mixed with other chemicals and crushed bones, Jiménez said.

The dentists likely had a sophisticated knowledge of tooth anatomy, Jiménez added—they knew how to drill into teeth without hitting the pulp inside, he said.

"They didn't want to generate an infection or provoke the loss of a tooth or break a tooth."

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