Going to the dentist to have your teeth checked out or a problem corrected was, for much of human history, much different than it is today. Evidence of dentistry goes back as far as 7000 B.C.E and the ancient Egyptians and Greeks developed extensive understandings of the development of teeth, treating tooth decay, gum disease, and tooth extractions as a basis for the study and practice of dentistry. By today’s standards, these understandings and practices are extremely crude and even intimidating given the potential for pain and infection in many procedures. The science and profession of what we know as modern dentistry wouldn’t develop and begin to emerge until well into the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. Nevertheless, human tooth care has fascinating origins.
Early Dental Care
The earliest form of dentistry involved attempting to treat and cure tooth related disorders using ancient drilling tools known as bow drills–commonly used to start fires. The earliest example of a dental filling was made of beeswax and was dated to 6500 years ago. Ancient Egyptians further developed dental care by developing treatments for minor problems and eventually evolving into treating more complex procedures by performing dental surgeries. The Etruscans and Greeks both pioneered new methods of treating dental problems and correcting irregularities using procedures like fillings, early braces, and even prosthetics.
Infection from cavities was a serious risk and could often mean a lifetime of pain or even death, so treating cavities by filling the tooth with beeswax and sometimes linen cloth soaked in medicine to ease pain was common. The living and eating habits of these ancient societies made things like wear of the teeth common–though in the absence of refined carbohydrates, cavities were less common. Coarse diets caused the teeth to wear extensively–exposing the pulp of the tooth at times with infection resulting. Gum disease was also a serious problem since teeth cleaning and preventative care were essentially non-existent. Still, dental care was performed and there is notable evidence of complex procedures like restorative dentistry where missing teeth were restored and bound with gold wire.
Dentistry today is a highly specialized, technologically advanced profession capable of addressing any dental and maxillofacial problem. Dentistry for a significant portion of human history was a painful and, at times, life threatening affair. Crude medical instruments, difficult procedures, limited understanding, and lack of anesthetic carried a serious risk of infection, pain, and even death. With time, advancements in education and tools would eliminate many of these complications, but the process was slow until the 18th and 19th centuries. Developing dental instruments, prosthesis capabilities, braces, and improved anesthetics enabled dentistry as we know it today to take hold and progress quickly over the past 250 years or so.