An archaeological team from the University of Bologna has recently published an analysis of two human maxillary central incisors, radiocarbon-dated to between 13,040 and 12,600 years ago, which they believe to have evidence of caries manipulation including filling with an organic residue. The article, which will be released this month in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology,1 comes two years after the same team described the oldest evidence of caries manipulation (without filling), a mandibular right third molar dated to about 14,000 years ago.2
The teeth, recovered from the late Upper Paleolithic archaeological site Riparo Fredian near Lucca, Italy, were digitally reconstructed by micro-computed tomography and chromatographically analyzed by Fourier-transformed infrared mass spectrometry (along with associated soil samples to exclude contamination); the pulp chamber material was also analyzed by Scanning Electron Microscope. They found distinct scratches on the interior of widened pulp chambers and deepened pulp canals, which more closely resembled stone tool manipulation than normal dental microwear, and the exogenous material from the pulp chambers and canals was found to resemble bitumen (a tar-like hydrocarbon mixture), accompanied by fiber fragments (possibly plant and hair).1 The researchers detailed a number of possibilities for the morphological and chemical data, ranging from natural attrition to cosmetic modifications, but argued that the modifications were clearly intentional and the bitumen substance was found nowhere else, suggesting a therapeutic response to a dental pathology. Previous archaeological finds have associated use of beeswax as a therapeutic filling, and more deliberate drilling techniques, but these cases have been limited to the more recent Neolithic period.1, 2
Anthropologists have long associated a notable increase in carious lesions, among other health concerns, with the shift from a hunter-gatherer/foraging diet to a more carbohydrate-rich agricultural one. This lifestyle shift has been regarded as the Neolithic Revolution, traditionally believed to begin around 10,000 years ago in the Near East. But this research indicates that the presence of caries, as well as the manufacture of sophisticated tools to manipulate them, may have begun appearing much earlier—making the transition to agriculture much more gradual than “revolutionary.”
Oxilia G, Fiorillo F, Boschin F, et al. The dawn of dentistry in the late upper Paleolithic: An early case of pathological intervention at Riparo Fredian. Am J Phys Anthropol 2017.
Oxilia G, Peresani M, Romandini M, et al. Earliest evidence of dental caries manipulation in the Late Upper Palaeolithic. Sci Rep 2015;5:12150.