Did the Ancient Egyptians Invent Modern Dental Care?
The Egyptians have been credited with many inventions, but perhaps their most important innovation is in dentistry. When people moved from hunter-gatherers to farming cultures, they were able to find more nutritious and reliable food sources, but these foods were not just nutritious for humans, they were nutritious for mouth bacteria, resulting in a shift from symbiotic mouth bacteria to pathologic mouth bacteria. About 10,000 years ago, people began to suffer from dental decay, and they were unsure of how to deal with the problem, until, of course, the Egyptians arrived.
The Egyptians had phrases for dentist, irw ibh, “he who deals with teeth,” and wr irw ibh, “master dentist”.
Dental Disease Was Common
According to a recent survey of over 3000 mummies studied, dental diseases were common among the Egyptians. This was due to a combination of many factors, including the ingestion of grains, but also because the stones used to grind grain led to the presence of numerous small rocks in the food, which led to extensive wear.
Common diseases included tooth wear, dental cavities, periodontal diseases, abscessed teeth, and more. It was common for Egyptians to lose all their teeth by age 40, and many died before this with numerous abscessed teeth, which may have contributed to their deaths.
The Egyptians published the first known recipe for a toothpaste, called a “powder for white and perfect teeth.” It included: rock salt, mint, iris flower, and pepper. Although it likely had a very strong taste, and a dentist who tried it said it made his gums bleed, it’s much better than more recent formulations that included such elements as brick dust or rocks.
Medical Treatment of Dental Maladies
Most of the Egyptian dentists’ secrets were contained in the Ebers Papyrus. That these were comprehensive is shown by the fact that these remedies are reproduced elsewhere, but few other remedies are found. The Ebers Papyrus includes medical remedies (potions, powders, and salves) for:
- Loose teeth
- Tooth pain
- Infected tooth
- Rinsing the mouth (presumably to clean it)
- Inflammation of the gums
- “Making healthy” the teeth, probably another preventative treatment
Most of these remedies haven’t been tested, and it’s unclear whether they worked or not. But we do know the Ebers Papyrus was handed down and recopied for probably a thousand years, so that even if the remedies didn’t work, people must have believed that they did.
A much more recent discovery is a dental remedy not documented in the written record. In looking at a mummy with a mouthful of cavities and a damaging sinus infection, they found that one of the teeth was stuffed with linen–an early attempt at a filling. It is believed that the linen may have been soaked in medicinal liquids before it was packed into the largest cavity in the mouth.
Dislocated Jaw Remedy
The Egyptians also had a remedy for a dislocated jaw, which involved putting the thumbs in the mouth and putting pressure on the temporomandibular joints, then pushing up on the chin to slip the jaw back in place.
However, despite the numerous medical interventions recommended for dental problems, there are almost no examples of a dental surgery. The one lone example seems to be a type of early denture or bridge. The find is of two teeth, one second molar and one third molar, found in a shaft at Giza, and joined together by a thin gold wire. The two teeth, which were found among human remains, show evidence that the third molar was both worn at the crown and decayed at the root.
According to dentist Adam Hahn, of Smile Columbia Dentistry, “It’s hard to know whether this is evidence that Egyptians created the world’s first dentures. The first evidence of definite dentures comes from the Etruscans, thousands of years later.”
The Limits of Their Knowledge
It is believed that although the Egyptians had produced a detailed catalogue of dental maladies and a wide array of seeming treatments, they still treated dental ailments with what were probably magical remedies, not actually medical ones. Their limited use of dental packing and almost complete lack of dental surgery showed that they didn’t have what we would consider a scientific understanding of dental problems and remedies. Which should make us all grateful to live in a modern age with scientific dentists with working remedies, not to mention dental anesthesia.
This article was written (not on papyrus, thankfully) by the talented Matthew Candelaria. He loves to write sci-fi. travel, and spend time with his family.