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Ancient Mayans used precious metal, gems and stone for dental treatment

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Ancient Maya teeth inlaid with jade was not just for aesthetics but also dental hygiene (Pic. Courtesy sciencealert.com)

For archaeologists and historians artefacts and objects of the past reveal a lot about the period and people they belong to and so do teeth of ancient human beings and cultures. Take for instance the ancient Maya who gave a lot of importance to their teeth as per a report in sciencealert.com and had them filled with jade, gold, jet, turquoise or hematite gems.

Irrespective of their gender or economic status, men and women from across the society paid a visit to the dentist to have their teeth drilled and filled with minerals, expensive stones and jewels.

While the inlays which survived the individual’s lifetime had a spiritual significance there was more to it than just aesthetics as a new study suggests that the material used for cementing the gems to the teeth had therapeutic and hygienic attributes.

The adhesive used held the gems in place for not just a lifetime but thousands of years and the ingredients used to make it had properties and potential to combat tooth decay and also check the spread of infection and inflammation in the mouth.

The presence of a rich mix of organic components set the archaeologists thinking that this material which was used to glue did not merely have water-repelling properties. The fixing of small stones to the canines and incisors early in one’s life afforded guarding against cavities.

Also read: Did mass migration turn Mayan people into maize eaters 5600 years ago?

In order to fit the precious stones in the teeth, the drilling done was exquisite and precise, very seldom affecting the blood vessels and nerves at the centre.

For the purpose of study, the scientists looked at the teeth from the past which came from three Maya archaeological sites. These were Honduras, Guatemala and Belize and these teeth did not appear to come from the individuals whose background was elite.

The glue used for attaching the gems had 150 organic molecules that are found in plant resins and significantly the blend of the adhesive varied slightly in terms of ingredients depending where the teeth came from but by and large the major components remained the same.

The cement used showed presence of compounds that are found in pine tree tar and these are thought to have antibacterial properties. Of the eight teeth, two had remains of sclareolide which is a plant compound and has antifungal and antibacterial properties. Besides, it smells pleasant and is used in the fragrance industry today.

Also found in the glue were essential oils from mint family plants which have potential anti-inflammatory effects.

The results of this study were on expected lines since the ancient Maya people were not just aware of dental hygiene but also were very serious about it. Not only they polished their teeth but also had them removed in case decay set in them.

Earlier the health benefits of dentistry practices were not considered by historians and instead the aesthetics like pointed shape of the teeth and their inlay of gems were given prominence by tagging them as ritualistic practices.  While dentistry in Maya was definitely an art form yet the new study suggests that there is more to it than just beautification.

Besides, the prevalence of treatment among a large number of people reflects that a person’s social status had not much to do with it.

Commenting on this aspect, the study’s authors wrote: "While the blends were both complex and effective in providing long-lasting dental obturations, the mortuary contexts of the individuals sampled indicate these were not elite individuals but that instead, a broad swathe of Maya society benefited from the expertise of the individuals who manufactured these cements.”

The details of this study were published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.