An international team of scientists have uncovered the earliest evidence of a technology we take for granted now – fillings for cavities. The archaeologists found evidence for a possible filling in a 6,500 year-old jaw that was found in Slovenia.
When examining the jaw, the researchers noted that one of the canines had a cavity that had traces of beeswax on it. Radiocarbon dating verified that both the jaw and beeswax were contemporaneous – that is, it wasn’t the case that a few hundred years later that the beeswax came to be on the jaw.
During the course of their investigation, one of the main questions was whether the cavity and other damage to the tooth happened before or after the death of the person. Although it can’t be completely ruled out, the damage to the tooth is consistent with damage that happens in a person’s lifetime, not the type of tooth damage that happens after death.
Moreover, the researchers also believe that the use of beeswax as a post-mortem burial ritual is unlikely as well, as there isn’t much evidence of ceremonial burial in the cultures of that area 6,500 years ago. Additionally, the only tooth where beeswax was applied was the one with the cavity. The crack in this tooth was particularly bad and probably caused the person a lot of pain. So the filling was probably applied to help dull or remove that pain. There’s evidence that the use of honey and other bee products for similar purposes was known at the time.
From the combination of all the evidence, the researchers concluded that “[b]ee products were largely used by prehistoric communities for technological, artistic and medical purposes but here we report, for the first time, its possible use for therapeutic-palliative dental filling.”
This is just one more piece of a growing body of evidence that medical techniques in the “stone age” were a lot more sophisticated than the popular sterotypes suggest. Prehistoric civilizations, far from being primitive and unsophisticated, were actually quite adept at using techniques that we might be tempted to think of as being quite modern.
That’s a mistake, though. As Sophie Bushwick at Discover noted, when she discussed this paper, “we drill a cavity before filling it in order to remove the decayed part of the tooth. For that kind of technology, our 6500-year-old friend would have to…go back another 2500 years.”