We have always viewed our teeth as something more than just tools for chewing and shredding food. Long before laser dentistry, Invisalign and Ozone, primitive people sought to enhance their appearance with beautiful teeth. The Mayans filled their teeth with colorful inlays of jade and gold. Young girls in the Ticuna tribe of Brazil traditionally filed their teeth into sharp points as a mark of beauty. On the other side of the world, Hindus in Bali file their teeth to symbolically remove aggressive behavior and mark the passage from puberty to adulthood in a ceremony that takes place prior to their wedding day.
Even cavemen were obsessed with preserving their teeth. In 2001, archaeologists digging at a Neolithic gravesite in Pakistan, estimated to be between 7,000 and 9,000 years old, uncovered evidence of humankind’s earliest dentistry. They found half a dozen molars that had been drilled with flint heads, revealing a complex procedure in which the tooth’s cavity wall was carved out to remove decay. Researchers believe that these early dentists were probably the tribe’s bead workers, whose skills also proved useful in fixing teeth.
Early in their history even the ancient Greeks hadn’t achieved this degree of sophistication. They initially believed that tooth decay was caused by spirits. They sought cures for toothaches and decay through magic and prayer. Not until the arrival of Hippocrates (BC 460-376), the father of modern medicine, were those notions dispelled. Hippocrates sought scientific evidence and set out to separate medicine from religion. He posited that disease wasn’t a punishment inflicted by the gods, but the product of diet and lifestyle.
In his journals, Hippocrates wrote extensively about problems with the teeth and gums, raising possible connections between what happened in the oral cavity and the rest of the body. He believed that tooth decay was caused by the corrosive action of food, in addition to individual predisposition. He also invented a number of dental instruments, including forceps for extraction, and advocated cleaning the teeth with small wooden sticks and wool moistened with honey.
Based on Hippocrates’ early work, the glory of Rome was said to be reflected in the mouths of its most prominent citizens. Clean teeth were so valued by affluent families that they had their slaves clean their mouths daily. Poets and writers of the time also celebrated teeth as a fundamental aspect of a woman’s beauty and an orator’s diction.