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Ancient tooth may provide evidence of early human dentistry

Researchers, including a Visiting Professorial Fellow at the University of Wollongong (UOW), may have uncovered new evidence of ancient dentistry in the form of a 6,500-year-old human jaw bone with a tooth showing traces of beeswax filling.

The finding is being reported in the latest open access online journal PLoS ONE.

One of the researchers is Visiting Professorial Fellow with UOW’s Centre for Archaeological Science, Professor Claudio Tuniz. The team involved in the discovery were led by Dr Federico Bernardini and Professor Tuniz who is also based at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy. Their research was undertaken in co-operation with Sincrotrone Trieste and other institutions including the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) which helped in the dating of the find.

They write in PLoS ONE that beeswax was applied around the time of the individual's death, but cannot confirm whether it was shortly before or after.

If it was before death, researchers say that it was likely intended to reduce pain and sensitivity from a vertical crack in the enamel and dentin layers of the tooth.

According to Professor Tuniz, the severe wear of the tooth “is probably also due to its use in non-alimentary activities, possibly such as weaving, generally performed by Neolithic females”.

Evidence of prehistoric dentistry is sparse, so this new specimen, found in Slovenia near Trieste, may help provide insight into early dental practices.

“This finding is perhaps the most ancient evidence of pre-historic dentistry in Europe and the earliest known direct example of therapeutic-palliative dental filling so far”, according to Dr Bernardini.

Citation: Bernardini F, Tuniz C, Coppa A, Mancini L, Dreossi D, et al. (2012) Beeswax as Dental Filling on a Neolithic Human Tooth. PLoS ONE 7(9): e44904. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044904.

Contacts: F. Bernardini, fbernard@ictp.it, 0039 340 688 7729 and C. Tuniz, ctuniz@ictp.it, 0039 335 597 3880. Lyndal Byford at the Australian Science Media Centre can also be contacted on (08) 7120 8666; lyndal@smc.org.au

Please link to the scientific article: http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0044904.

Note: Professor Claudio Tuniz is currently in Italy and can best be reached on the contact details given above.

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