The History of Dentistry – Ancient Origins

Fuquay Varina dentist looks at ancient dentistry

While we try to focus on innovations in dentistry, like new equipment, technology, and treatments, we also know it’s important (and fun!) to look back at the origins and history of the practice.  That’s why our Fuquay family dentist is taking a look back at ancient dentistry and it’s progression.

Dentistry Dating Back to 7000 BCE

The first known dental treatments and practices can be traced back to around 7000 BCE in the Indus River Valley Civilization, near the border of modern day Pakistan and India. It is thought that healers would use woodworking tools, like bow drills, to repair cavities and remove decay, while other tools were used to extract teeth. Historians have been surprised at how effective these tools were in caring and treating teeth, and also, how few extractions and missing teeth were found when recovering burial sites.

It wasn’t just the Indus River Valley, Ancient Sumerian texts that date back to 5000 BCE contain some of the first written mentions of tooth decay, attributing the issue to “tooth worms.” This wasn’t an uncommon belief, as tooth worms were found in texts in Ancient Egypt, India, China, and Japan though the ones in Sumeria date back the furthest. Surprisingly, this idea of tooth worms burrowing into enamel and causing decay wasn’t completely disproven until around 1700.

The First Dentist

While dentistry practices were used, there wasn’t reference to a specific practitioner of dentistry until 2600 BCE. Hesy-Ra (or Hesy-Re in some texts), a high ranking Egyptian official, priest, and scribe during the Third Dynasty, is believed to also be the first known dentist. He held many titles, including:

  • Rekh-neswt – “Confidant of the King”
  • Medjeh-seschjw – “Chief of the Scribes”
  • Hem-heka-Mehit – “Magician of Mehit”
  • Wer-ibeh-senjw – “Great one of the Dentists”

Of course, it’s the last title we’re most interested in as it’s the first known reference to a dentist. However, there are some debates because wer-ibeh-senjw can be translated as “great one of the ivory cutters” so some historians believe he was an artist, rather than an occupational dentist.

Restorative Dentistry in Ancient Civilizations

Documents, scrolls, and wood carvings found by Egyptologists and historians continued to show the interest in dentistry in Ancient Egypt. Replacement teeth were wound in gold wire and placed along the gumline, descriptions of tools used to extract teeth were used, and treatments for tooth pain were found in papyrus scrolls dating back between 2000 BCE and 1500 BCE.

While dentistry was being practiced in Ancient Egypt and other civilizations, much of what was being practiced was related to extractions and treating pain. This began to change with Hippocrates, a Greek physician (from whom the Hippocratic Oath is derived) who is one of the best known figures in the history of medicine. He noted patterns of teeth erupting in infants and children as well as the pattern of baby teeth being lost as adult teeth would come in. Additionally, he wrote about treating gum disease and using wires to stabilize loose teeth and broken jaws to prevent extraction. Later in Ancient Rome, documents written by Cornelius Celsus, a medical writer, describe treatments of oral diseases and how to treat them with medicated ointments and astringents.

One of the first major steps toward modern dentistry can be found in China, during the Tang Dynasty. A text dating back to 659 ACE describes the first dental amalgam filling made from tin and silver and used to fill cavities.

Schedule a Checkup with Our Fuquay Family Dentist

While it’s interesting and enjoyable to read about the history of dentistry, especially in ancient times, we certainly are grateful to be able to practice in a modern era. We strive to provide the most innovative solutions to improve our patients’ dental health in a comfortable and relaxing setting. To schedule an appointment, reach out to us today at  919-552-2431 or fill out the form below to get started.

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