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Dental Drilling is Older Than We Thought

The current thinking about the history of dentistry tells us that humans didn’t have many dental problems until we settled down and developed agriculture. With the rise of carbohydrates in our diets (although there may be other factors), we started to get tooth decay. It must have been horrible. If a rotten tooth eventually fell out, it must have seemed a blessing. But people tried to do something about it even before dental drills were developed. A 14,000-year-old skull shows evidence of dentistry, in which a decayed tooth was deliberately scraped with a tool, possibly a flint blade. The first real dental drill is thought to have arose in Pakistan, between 9,000 and 7,500 years ago. How did they do it?

Some indigenous societies today carve holes in objects using a tool called a bow-drill. This consists of a few sticks of wood, a sharp stone, and a length of cord. The cord is tied to either end of one flexible stick, making it look like a small version of an archer’s bow.

The cord is then wrapped tightly around a second stick held perpendicular to the “bow”. By simply moving the bow back and forth, this second stick will rotate just as a drill does. Attaching a sharp stone to the end of this drill increases its cutting power.

To get an idea of whether a stone-tipped bow-drill could function in dentistry, the research team working in Pakistan constructed a bow-drill and attempted to drill holes in human enamel. The results were surprising; it took under a minute to drill holes of the kind seen in the 9,000-year-old teeth.

Evidence of prehistoric dental drilling comes from other parts of the world, too. And wait until you find out what they filled those teeth with! Read about the history of dental drilling at BBC Earth. You’ll want to brush and floss as soon as you finish the article. -via Metafilter

(Image credit: Stefano Benazzi)

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