Mehrgarh, Baluchistan

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Origins of the Dentist(With a Stone-Age Drill)


Mehrgarh complex, near the Bolan River, Baluchistan,

International Herald Tribune


Man's first known trip to the dentist occurred as early as 9,000 years ago, when at least nine people living in a Neolithic village in present-day Pakistan had holes drilled into their molars and survived the procedure, anthropologists reported yesterday.

The findings, which appear in the journal Nature, push back the dawn of dentistry by 4,000 years. The drilled molars, 11 in all, come from a sample of 300 individuals buried in graves at the Mehrgarh site in western Pakistan, believed to be the oldest Stone Age complex in the Indus River valley. "This is certainly the first case of drilling a person's teeth," said David W. Frayer, a professor at the University of Kansas who is the lead author. "But even more significant, this practice lasted some 1,500 years and was a tradition at this site. It wasn't just a sporadic event."

The earliest previously known evidence of dental work was a drilled molar found in a Neolithic graveyard in Denmark dating from about 3000 B.C.; the Pakistan graves are from about 7000 B.C.

All nine of the Mehrgarh patients were adults, ranging in age from about 20 to over 40 — four men, two women and three whose sex could not be determined. Most of the dental work was done on the chewing surfaces of their molars, in both the upper and lower jaws, probably using a flint point attached to a bow that made a Stone Age version of a high-speed drill, the researchers said. Concentric ridges carved by the drilling device were found inside the holes. The drilling may have been done to relieve the suffering of tooth rot, but only 4 of the 11 teeth showed signs of decay. The scientists said it was clear that the holes were not made for aesthetic reasons, given their position deep in the mouth and on the erosion-prone surface of the teeth. There was no evidence of fillings, but because some of the holes were bored deep into the teeth, the researchers think something was used to plug them. What that substance was is not known.

The shallowest holes were just half a millimeter, but the deepest were 3.5 millimeters (about an eighth of an inch), enough to pierce the enamel and enter the sensitive dentin.

Dental health was poor at Mehrgarh, though the problems were less often tooth decay than brutal wear and tear. Roberto Macchiarelli, a professor of paleoanthropology at the University of Poitiers, France, and the report's lead anthropological researcher, attributed the bad teeth to the Neolithic diet, which included newly domesticated wheat and barley.

"A lot of abrasive mineral material was introduced when grains were ground on a stone," he said. "And as these people moved to a grain diet, their teeth wore down, dentin was exposed and the risk of infection rose."

The Mehrgarh complex, occupied for 4,000 years, sits beside the Bolan River in Baluchistan, on a plain that was repeatedly buried in alluvial deposits that not only destroyed mud-brick buildings but crushed many skeletons in the graveyard. The excavation of 300 individuals was begun by a French team in the 1980's; international groups followed until 2001, when it became too dangerous to work in Baluchistan.

None of the individuals with drilled teeth appear to have come from a special tomb or sanctuary, indicating that the oral care they received was available to all.

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