Oldest Dentistry in Americas Found -- Fang Dentures?

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.

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