The First Dental Drills Are Over 14,000 Years Old

Most people dread it when they hear those four little words from their dentists: “You have a cavity”. Why? Because it leads to drilling and most of us don’t relish that thought. But imagine a world without modern dental technology. Were cavities even treated in ancient times, and if so, how did they do it?

Prehistoric Oral Health

Interestingly, our ancestors amazingly had pretty good oral health. Tooth decay was actually very rare in our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and really wasn’t a problem until the Neolithic age, when people began farming. Many scientists think the shift to diets rich in carbohydrates brought on the tooth decay because some oral bacteria convert carbs into acids that wreak havoc on tooth enamel. Around the same time, dentistry evolved. Before it had pretty much just involved use of a toothpick, but more sophisticated techniques soon emerged.

Since 2005, archaeologists have been uncovering evidence that several techniques—scraping, scouring, and drilling and filling—were used to fix cavities.

First Dental Drills

Dental drills are older than writing and used 1,000 years before the wheel was invented. Italian scientists discovered a male’s 14,000-year-old skull that definitely showed signs of a decayed tooth that had been scraped with a tool. Needless to say, dentistry with these tools would have been extremely painful!

The first true dental drills were thought to have originated in Pakistan about 9,000 years ago. Scientists discovered a graveyard in which nine people had definitely had their teeth drilled out. The holes were very precise, and one person had three different holes on three different teeth. The researchers believe a type of bow drill was used; the tool likely had a flexible stick, a cord, and a sharp stone. A second stick moved the bow and cord back and forth to rotate just like a drill.

Thousands of years later, in Peru, similar drills were used and there is even evidence that Peruvian dentists administered local anesthesia in the form of coca leaves to relieve the pain of the procedure.

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