Physics Meets Anthropology

Modern Physics Tools Uncover Prehistoric Dental Treatment

Federico Bernardini from the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ITCP) examines a 7 000-year-old human tooth using tomography equipment. (Photo: ICTP)

Results of an international research effort led by ICTP and Sincrotrone Trieste ELETTRA on a nearly 7 000-year-old cracked tooth from Slovenia suggests that therapeutic dentistry may have been around much longer than we thought.

Using a combination of modern physics tools - including three-dimensional, high-resolution X-ray, radiocarbon dating with accelerator mass spectrometry, and infrared spectroscopy - the researchers analysed the tooth to determine the age and composition of a resinous filling detected inside the tooth. The analysis showed that the tooth was filled with beeswax, likely to alleviate the pain of chewing on a cracked tooth, providing the earliest known direct evidence of a therapeutic dental filling.

Details of the research have been published in the online, open science journal PloS One.

"Bee products were used by prehistoric communities for technological, artistic and medical purposes, but it is thanks to the Lonche finding that we can now imagine men doing dentistry in Neolithic Europe," said the study's lead author, Federico Bernardini, a postdoctoral fellow at ICTP's Multidisciplinary Laboratory.

"Evidence of the earliest known practice of dentistry was discovered some years ago in a 9 000-year-old graveyard in Pakistan, but until now there was no evidence of tooth filling," added Claudio Tuniz, co-author of the study and a coordinator of the ICTP/ELETTRA X-ray imaging laboratory.

The tooth is from a jawbone that was found in a cave near the village of Lonche, Slovenia and is considered one of the most ancient evidence of pre-historic dentistry and the earliest known direct example of therapeutic-palliative dental filling so far. The researchers determined that the jawbone came from a man aged between 24 and 30 years who lived some 6 500 years ago.

ICTP and Sincrotrone Trieste used funding from a €600 000 grant provided by the local government of Regione Friuli Venezia Giulia to develop a new portfolio of instruments and methodologies to study objects from the past. The two institutes have developed compact and portable x-ray devices capable of analysing the structure and chemical composition of ancient bones, buildings and art objects in a non-destructive fashion. The devices are the first instruments of their type in Italy devoted to anthropological research.

The research on the beeswax filling was carried out in collaboration with the University "La Sapienza", Italy; Museum of Natural History, Trieste; INNOVA and 2nd University of Naples; and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation; and the University of Trieste.

Last update: 11 November 2014