Max Planck Research Group on Plant Foods in Hominin Dietary Ecology


16 July 2015

The oldest archaeological evidence of operative manual intervention to treat a carious lesion dates back to the Late Upper Palaeolithic, according to research published in the journal Scientific Reports. With help from current and former members of Plant Foods group, the team, led by researchers from the University of Bologna and University of Ferrara, analysed a lower molar with a carious lesion from the prehistoric rockshelter of Riparo Villabruna in the Veneto Dolomites, northern Italy. The specimen is a young male individual buried

Villabruna Skull molar and microlithic points

around 14,000 years ago. The state-of-the-art methods adopted in this study confirm the tooth cavity was intentionally manipulated, through the application of microlithic pointed tools to remove infected tissues. Therefore, the Palaeolithic specimen from Villabruna predates by at least 5,000 years the Neolithic dental drilling evidence from Pakistan.  The results have strong implications for our understanding of the development of dental caries intervention, suggesting that rudimentary forms of carious treatment in human evolution entail an adaptation of the well-known toothpicking for levering and scratching rather than drilling practices.

Dental caries are a major oral health problem in modern human societies, and the need to treat carious teeth was well-known during historical times as well. The most ancient evidence of dentistry dates back to the Neolithic, but before this period no real dental caries manipulation was ever observed. The Villabruna specimen attests to the presence of rudimentary caries intervention at least 14,000 years ago, during the Late Upper Paleolithic. The authors used a multidisciplinary approach that involved a functional reconstruction of the Villabruna dentition to confirm that the enamel chippings were not produced during mastication, Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) and cross-section analyses to visualize and analyse the striations within the dental cavity and experimental tests to confirm that these striations were produced by microlithic stone tools.

“What the results mean,” states Dr. Stefano Benazzi, senior author of the paper, “is that the Villabruna specimen represents the oldest archaeological evidence of operative manual intervention on a pathological condition (caries). Villabruna predates any undisputed evidence of dental and cranial surgery, currently represented by dental drillings and cranial trephinations dating back to the Mesolithic/Neolithic period, about 9,000-7,000 years ago. This finding suggests that Late Upper Paleolithic humans were aware about the deleterious effects of caries, and the need to intervene with invasive treatment applying microlithic tools to remove infected tissues, and to clean a deep dental cavity.”

The original paper is available online: Scientific Reports 5, Article number: 12150 (2015),
doi: 10.1038/srep12150.


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