Earliest evidence of proto-dental treatment in the Late Upper Paleolithic

Gregorio Oxilia, Marco Peresani, Matteo Romandini, Chiara Matteucci, Cynthianne Debono Spiteri, Amanda G Henry, Dieter Schulz, Will Archer, Jacopo Crezzini, Francesco Boschin, Paolo Boscato, Klervia Jaouen, Tamara Dogandzic, Alberto Broglio, Jacopo Moggi-Cecchi, Luca Fiorenza, Jean-Jacques Hublin, Ottmar Kullmer, Stefano Benazzi

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review


Prehistoric dental treatments have been known from the Neolithic - 9,000-7,500 years before present (BP) - (Coppa et al. 2006), when the adoption of early farming culture caused an increase of carious lesions (Eaton, 2006). They were extremely rare (Bernardini et al. 2012), and the few documented cases were characterized by in vivo perforation of the crown surface made by a drilling tool (Coppa et al. 2006). Here we document the earliest evidence of dental therapeutic intervention on a Late Upper Paleolithic modern human lower right third molar (RM3) from a burial in Northern Italy (Vercellotti et al, 2008). The RM3 belongs to a young male individual (ca. 25 years old) unearthed in 1988 from the Epigravettian deposit of Riparo Villabruna (Sovramonte – Belluno, Italy), and dated around 14,160-13,820 yr BP. This tooth presents a large occlusal cavity, with a polished internal surface and extensive enamel chipping traces on the steep mesial wall. Within the cavity four caries (characterized by demineralized, dark dental tissues) are present. The cavity is sub-squared on the lingual and mesial sides but rounded on the buccal and distal sides. Using Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) we show the presence of striations within the cavity, which fade out towards the occlusal surface probably as a consequence of tooth wear. The striations have a “V’’ shaped transverse section and microstriation at the bottom, sharply defined, with a high apex, steep sides, narrow cross-sections and well-defined parallel ancillary ridging, as typically displayed by cutmarks on teeth (Estalrrich and Rosas, 2013). Based on in vitro experimental replication and a complete functional reconstruction of the Villabruna dental arches, we confirm that the identified striations and the associated extensive enamel chipping on the mesial wall of the cavity were produced ante-mortem by pointed flint tools during scratching and chiseling activities. The Villabruna specimen is therefore the oldest known evidence of dental caries intervention, suggesting advanced knowledge of disease treatment well before the Neolithic. This study also suggests that primitive forms of dental treatment in human evolution entail chiseling and scratching rather than drilling practices, potentially assisted by the therapeutic-palliative use of beeswax.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages174
Publication statusPublished - 2015
EventAnnual Meeting of the European Society for the study of Human Evolution (ESHE 2015) - London, United Kingdom
Duration: 10 Sept 201512 Sept 2015
Conference number: 5th


ConferenceAnnual Meeting of the European Society for the study of Human Evolution (ESHE 2015)
Abbreviated titleEHSE 2015
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address

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