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Oldest Dentistry in Americas Found -- Fang Dentures?

John Roach
for National Geographic News
June 14, 2006
 
The earliest dental patient in the Americas spent many hours with the dentist and likely experienced excruciating—perhaps deadly—pain, according to an analysis released today of skeletal remains uncovered in the volcanic highlands of west-central Mexico.

Found at the oldest known burial site in Mesoamerica—the area from central Mexico south to El Salvador—the remains are dated to between 2570 B.C. and 2322 B.C. (See a Mexico map.)

The teeth show the earliest known evidence of dental modification in the Americas.

"They were filed down over a long period of time to accommodate a ceremonial denture that would have been inserted in the upper jaw," said Tricia Gabany-Guerrero, an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

Gabany-Guerrero leads the excavation in the shadow of Paricutin volcano in Mexico's Michoacán state. James Chatters, an anthropologist and paleontologist conducted the tooth analysis with the AMEC corporation in Seattle, Washington.

According to Chatters's analysis, the bottom row of teeth is worn to normal levels. But the upper front teeth were intentionally filed down to make room for the denture, perhaps the palate of a jaguar or wolf.

Gabany-Guerrero said the tooth filing was "probably—unless some local anesthetic was used—quite painful."

The teeth were filed down to the nub, exposing the pulp cavities. An infection there may have killed the patient, according to Chatters's analysis.

(Also see "Vikings Filed Their Teeth, Skeleton Study Shows" [February 3, 2006].)

Special Man

The teeth were found among skull, hand, leg, and foot bones belonging to a healthy adult male between 28 and 32 years old. He stood approximately 5 feet, 1 inch (155 centimeters) tall, according to the research team.

The muscle attachments on the bones indicate the man led a sedentary life. But they show no sign of physical debility or ailments such as arthritis, according to the researchers.

"We don't think he worked very hard," Gabany-Guerrero said.

The burial site is at an altitude of 8,860 feet (2,700 meters). Living at that altitude 4,500 years ago would have required a certain amount of physical exertion, she added.

"We think he was someone who was cared for," she said. "That coincides with the idea he filled some ceremonial role in the community."

In addition, the man was buried below a cliff wall emblazoned with elaborate paintings of people dancing and hunting that are consistent with Mesoamerican iconographic symbols.

"This is still speculation, but there is quite a bit of evidence there was something special about this particular person," she said.

Gabany-Guerrero and colleagues began excavating at the Michoacán site in 2000 and discovered the man in 2003. Analysis of the remains started in 2005.

The local people in the community of Purépecha named the man "Huitzinki" (pronounced wee-zee-neeki). It means "the bald man"—a nod to his bare skull, according to the researchers.

Gabany-Guerrero and colleagues announced the find today. The National Geographic Society supported the research. (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)

Late Archaic Communities

Barbara Voorhies is a professor emerita of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She studies the Archaic period in the tropical lowlands of Chiapas state in southeast Mexico.

The Mesoamerican Archaic spans from 9500 B.C. to 2500 B.C. and is the transitional period between societies based on a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and domesticated agriculture.

Voorhies said the discovery of a man with apparent special social status in the volcanic highlands of Michoacán in the Late Archaic "is definitely of interest and probably casts a new light on whatever is known about the Archaic in that particular region."

She has yet to find burials or structures to argue whether the Mesoamerican Archaic societies in the tropical lowlands were differentiated into social classes.

According to excavation leader Gabany-Guerrero, the finding of an advancing society amid the highland volcanoes of Mexico will change how archaeologists think about the Late Archaic occupation of Mexico.

At the time the man's teeth were filed down, dry climates prevailed in lowland west-central Mexico, according to Gabany-Guerrero.

She and colleague Stephen Hackenberry, an anthropologist at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, speculate that people moved up to the highlands to exploit seasonal ponds.

Pollen samples currently under analysis may reveal that these communities were farming corn and squash, Gabany-Guerrero says.

Obsidian flakes from a mountain about 90 miles (150 kilometers) to the east were buried with the man, suggesting that mining and trading was also occurring, she adds.

"The Archaic in general has not received a whole lot of research attention, and not much is known about it anywhere, except little points of light here and there," the University of California's Voorhies said. "To find anything about the Archaic from my perspective is of interest, naturally."

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