The glittering "grills" of some hip-hop stars aren't exactly unprecedented. Sophisticated dentistry allowed Native Americans to add bling to their teeth as far back as 2,500 years ago, a new study says.

Ancient peoples of southern North America went to "dentists"—among the earliest known—to beautify their chompers with notches, grooves, and semiprecious gems, according to a recent analysis of thousands of teeth examined from collections in Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (such as the skull above, found in Chiapas, Mexico).

Scientists don't know the origin of most of the teeth in the collections, which belonged to people living throughout the region, called Mesoamerica, before the Spanish conquests of the 1500s.

But it's clear that people—mostly men—from nearly all walks of life opted for the look, noted José Concepción Jiménez, an anthropologist at the institute, which recently announced the findings.

"They were not marks of social class" but instead meant for pure decoration, he commented in an e-mail interview conducted in Spanish.

In fact, the royals of the day—such as the Red Queen, a Maya mummy found in a temple at Palenque in what is now Mexico—don't have teeth decorations, Jiménez said.

Other evidence of early Mesoamerican dentistry—including a person who had received a ceremonial denture—has also been found.

Knowledgeable Dentists

The early dentists used a drill-like device with a hard stone such as obsidian, which is capable of puncturing bone.

"It's possible some type of [herb based] anesthetic was applied prior to drilling to blunt any pain," Jiménez said.

The ornamental stones—including jade—were attached with an adhesive made out of natural resins, such as plant sap, which was mixed with other chemicals and crushed bones, Jiménez said.

The dentists likely had a sophisticated knowledge of tooth anatomy, Jiménez added. For example, they knew how to drill into teeth without hitting the pulp inside, he said.

"They didn't want to generate an infection or provoke the loss of a tooth or break a tooth."

—John Roach Via National Geographic

Photograph courtesy José C. Jiménez López

Responses to "Ancient Gem-Studded Teeth Show Skill of Early Dentists"

  1. Unknown says:

    That's so cool and actually really pretty!

  2. Anonymous says:

    "The early dentists used a drill-like device with a hard stone such as obsidian,..." Obsidian is actually very brittle. It seems strange they would have used it for drills...?

  3. Kit Hill says:

    Obsidian is quite hard (Mohs scale 5-6) and since it fractures conchoidally it was made into arrowheads. So it seems likely it could also be used as a drill.

  4. Anonymous says:

    The direct quote from wikipedia is "Obsidian is hard and brittle; it therefore fractures with very sharp edges, which had been used in the past in cutting and piercing tools, and are still used as surgical scalpel blades"
    If you're going to quote only portions of information, it is misleading.

  5. Unknown says:

  6. hetsley says:

    Though it generally has good information, wikipedia should never be used as an unquestionable source.

  7. Anonymous says:

    As a person who has flaked Obsidian, it Varies from very brittle to very hard and tough very much like a soft metal, yes it can be made into a point fastened round stick which rotated can drill through bone, it take more time that than metal but can do a fair job.
    I would like to know what the glue/cement that holds the gem in place was made of , some of the secrets of the ancients are coming to light as archaeology methods improve.
    Nice to see that credit is given to the original natives of turtle Island instead of Aliens from space or Europeans.

  8. Anonymous says: Accomplishments of the Mexica

  9. Jeff in Medford says:

    I had an extraction and lost the clot. My bad, so my dentist used "eugenol" topically for pain. I said it tasted like clove. By golly, by gum, presto! IS clove oil, with sesame oil.

    For other local and general anaesthetic, got cocaine?

    Herb-based, indeed. We're using the same shizz now. LOL

  10. Unknown says:

    It looks like it was one young guy older than 18 y.o. His bones are looking very strong and all his teeth are present. Also just wondering what the cement had been used for the gem stones incrustation??
    Jeff, you can use clove oil for tooth pain relieve. Like take a cotton palette(little ball of cotton made with your fingers in a couple of second), soak it in clove oil and put on the tooth and hold for some time. It will sooth the pain so you can sleep. Another thing is garlic. If your tooth is on the right, tight the half of the garlic to you left wrist where you can find your pulse exactly. Honestly, I can't imagine how it works but it works. On old lady suggested me the remedy. But if there is a pain it's always better to seek good dentist right away. Pain you cam release or just soothe but it doesn't meant your tooth may recover itself.

  11. Unknown says:

    He was so fashionable guy, I can see. The mamelones on his lower in incisors are awesome! God almighty, how the dentist have been making them that time????....

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