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12 October 2012
Oldest dental filling found in a Stone Age tooth

A simple beeswax cap that was applied to a broken tooth 6500 years ago is the oldest dental filling on record. It adds to evidence that Neolithic communities had a surprisingly sophisticated knowledge of dentistry.
     The recipient of the treatment was most likely a 24 to 30 year old man, living in what is now Slovenia. His fossilised jawbone was found early last century near the village of Lonche - at the time, one of the oldest human bones ever found in the region.
     Claudio Tuniz at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste and his colleague Federico Bernardini happened to use the specimen to test new X-ray imaging equipment, and spotted some unusual material attached to a canine, perfectly filling a large cavity and the upper part of a long vertical crack.
     Infrared spectroscopy identified the material as beeswax, and radiocarbon dating found both it and the tooth to be around 6500 years old.
     Previous finds also suggest that Neolithic humans were competent dentists. In 2001, David Frayer at the University of Kansas in Lawrence (USA) and his colleagues found drill holes - probably made by flint - in 11 human molars from a 7500 to 9000 year old graveyard in Pakistan. Four of the drilled teeth showed signs of decay, but none held a filling. "The more we learn about prehistoric populations the more we appreciate their sophisticated ways," says Frayer.
     Stephen Buckley at the University of York (UK), part of a team that recently found evidence, from an analysis of teeth, that Neanderthals practised medicine, says "Beeswax would make sense as a filling material for a number of reasons... it's easily melted, yet it solidifies to fit the gap when cooled to room temperature."
     Buckley adds that beeswax can contain honey and propolis, both of which have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. "I used beeswax for a major project on Egyptian mummification, and it was very useful - hence its employment by the Egyptian embalmers," he says.

Edited from NewScientist (19 September 2012)

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