By SINDYA N. BHANOO
Published: September 24, 2012
Ancient dentistry has been discovered in a 6,500-year-old human jawbone: a lump of beeswax that appears to be the earliest evidence of a dental filling.
The beeswax was probably applied to ease pain from a crack in the enamel and dentin layers of the tooth, said Claudio Tuniz, a nuclear paleoanthropologist at the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics in Italy.
He and his colleagues report his findings in the journal PLoS One.
The details, based on this single finding, are fuzzy, said the study’s first author, Federico Bernardini, an archaeologist at the center.
“We don’t know if the substance was put in by the person, or some kind of doctor,” he said.
The jawbone was discovered in 1911, embedded in a rock inside a cave in what is now Slovenia. For many years it was left unstudied in the Museum of Natural History in Trieste, Italy.
With radiocarbon analysis, the researchers determined that both the tooth and the beeswax were 6,500 years old.
The Neolithic people that lived in the area at the time were primarily involved in breeding sheep, Dr. Bernardini said.
They probably used their teeth as “a third hand,” he said — a tool to hold thread when weaving, for instance. There is also evidence that they were using resinous aromatic bee products.
Evidence of prehistoric dentistry is rare, but it exists. Tooth drilling, for instance, is known to have occurred in what is now Pakistan more than 7,500 years ago.
A version of this article appeared in print on September 25, 2012, on page D3 of the New York edition with the headline: A Beeswax Dental Filling That Lasted 6,500 Years.