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Turkish teeth necklaces from 8,500 years ago hint at ancient rituals

Taboo? Momento mori? Mystery surrounds the neolithic find.

The two drilled 8,500-year-old human teeth found at Çatalhöyük in Turkey. 
University of Copenhagen

During excavations at a Neolithic site in Turkey, researchers unearthed a rare find, previously undocumented in the near east: three 8,500-year-old teeth, of which two were once used as pendants in a necklace. 

The University of Copenhagen scientists detailed the dental discoveries this month in an article in the Journal of Archaeological Sciences.

"What is most interesting is the fact that human teeth and bone were not selected and modified more often. Thus, because of the rarity of the find, we find it very unlikely that these modified human teeth were used solely for aesthetic purposes but rather carried profound symbolic meaning for the people who wore them," the article's author, Scott Haddow, said in a release

"Perhaps these human teeth pendants were related to specific -- and rare -- ritual taboos? Or perhaps we should look to the identity of the two individuals from whom the teeth were extracted for an explanation?"

While researchers have previously found human teeth used for ornamental purposes at European sites from the Upper Palaeolithic and the Neolithic eras, this find is a surprising one for the region, and it led scientists to dig deeper with macroscopic, microscopic and radiographic analyses. Not only had the two teeth been drilled with a conically shaped microdrill like those used for animal-bone boring, but they also showed signs of daily wear. The teeth are thought to be from humans aged 30 to 50. 

Given the small sample size, however, Haddow said the ultimate meaning of the human teeth pendants remains elusive for now.

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