14,000-year-old tooth shows oldest (and probably most painful) form of dentistry

A molar found in northern Italy shows that people practiced dental repair way back in the Paleolithic era. Unfortunately for them, novocaine and nitrous oxide wouldn't be available until much, much later.

Danny Gallagher
CNET freelancer Danny Gallagher has contributed to Cracked.com, Mental Floss, Maxim, Break.com, Mandatory, Jackbox Games, Geeks Who Drink and many, many other publications in his never-ending quest to bring the world's productivity to a screeching halt. He lives and works in Dallas. Email Danny.
Danny Gallagher
2 min read

This human tooth specimen was treated for a cavity 14,000 years ago, making it the oldest known evidence of dental practice. Did they also find a 14,000-year-old basket of lollipops and a "Highlights for Children" magazine? Nature

Unless you're like Bill Murray from "Little Shop of Horrors," you probably don't like going to the dentist. They've got all these bizarre, metal implements sitting around, that you know go in your mouth but aren't going to do anything pleasant.

Well, the next time you're staring down what may or may not be a spiked tongue straightener or a jaw jack, just be thankful you didn't have to get a tooth drilled during the Paleolithic era, when the closest thing they had to a sterile instrument was a sharpened rock.

The Paleolithic era wasn't just a random chunk of time chosen to make a hilarious point. It's actually provided the newest and oldest piece of evidence of the history of dentistry. A new study from the University of Bologna in Italy announced that this discovery comes courtesy of a 14,000-year-old tooth.

The journal "Scientific Reports" published the study Thursday.

Archaeologists found the ancient chomper at a dig site in northern Italy back in 1988, and tests show that it came from the Late Upper Paleolithic era, approximately 13,820 to 14,160 years ago. Stefano Benazzi, a paleoanthropologist from the University of Bologna, who co-authored the study, told Discovery News that they didn't spot this groundbreaking dental evidence until 25 years later.

Researchers found a cavity in the tooth that contained "extensive enamel chipping" made before the specimen's death at approximately 25 years of age. These chips and the cavity suggest that people living during the Paleolithic era possessed "at least some knowledge of disease treatment," according to the study's abstract.

Researchers tried to replicate the ancient dental procedure by scratching at the molar's wall of enamel with implements made of different materials such as wood and bone. The experiment showed that whoever worked on the ancient tooth most likely used dental tools made out of sharpened flint. I think I speak on behalf of everyone with at least one tooth in their head when I say, "Ow!"

There have been other discoveries that prove humans from previous eras tried to fix each other's teeth in increasingly painful ways. According to a study published in the journal PLoS ONE in 2012, the previous dental surgery record happened approximately 6,500 years ago during the Neolithic era. Researchers discovered evidence of beeswax used as filling material on a cracked, canine tooth from a human jaw found in a cave in Slovenia more than a century ago, according to LiveScience.

Another study published in 2006 in the journal Nature announced the discovery of evidence of dental drilling. According to The New York Times, scientists found human molars in western Pakistan that dated back to somewhere between 4,000-7,000 BC that were drilled with tools made of (yikes!) stone.

I never thought I'd say this, but I want to give whoever invented floss a big, wet kiss and a hug right now.