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Temple of the lost arts of ancient dentistry

When Mexican archaeologists saw something glitter in the skull of an ancient mummy buried near the ruins of an Aztec pyramid, nobody expected to be greeted by the jewellery-work of a 1600-year-old dentist. Jade Richardson investigates.

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It’s exactly the place where Indiana Jones and other Raiders of Lost Arks would feel totally at home. Arid sandy plains sweep out in all directions. Shady characters lurk in ancient alleyways. Skanky cats spy from perches, their witchy vibes perfectly adding to the allure of mystery, ritual, human sacrifice and lost treasure that hootchy kootchies off the heat vapors around the lost city of Teotihuacan, in deepest Mexico.


Studded with large pyramids (yes, that’s right, pyramids!), and well-known to scientific mystery hunters everywhere from Harvard to the electrifying hovels of gem-thieves, grave robbers, black magic seekers and pilferers of lost cosmic secrets, Teotihuacan is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and an untapped wonderland for dentists seeking the magic and inspiration of their lost ancestors.

For years archaeologists, anthropologists, engineers, astrologers, mythologists, geneticists and other cousins of science have been happily blowing themselves away on endless discoveries of genius technologies and high culture among the pre-historic ruins of Mexico, which point to a people who lived in a refined, spiritualized, cosmically-organised, dentally artistic and medically-advanced world which challenges the modern idea of Darwinian cultural development.

Earlier this year, in the blistering hot summer digs, the excitement of disruptive (and slightly magical) finds among the ruins spilled over into the unassuming (and sometimes almost a bit too far away from thrill and excitement) world of dentistry.

When the 1600-year-old skull of a woman was pulled from the dust, the grey layers of burial time carefully brushed from her strangely and skillfully deformed contours, archaeologists were amazed to see that she had gemstones still adhered and expertly imbedded in her front teeth, and an intact dental implant made of serpentine.

The discovery was so alarming that it was reported as an “extreme” find by the team, headed by researchers from the National Anthropology and History Institute in Mexico, who had been digging around among the ruins of the pre-Hispanic civilization for decades and never seen anything like this.

It‘s not the only mystery surrounding the pyramid-studded and architecturally advanced protected site at Teotihuacan, an abandoned metropolis 50kms north of present Mexico City which hosted a thriving mystic, architectural and trading center between 1 and 8 BC – when the entire population and civilization mysteriously vanished.

Which is a recurring theme in ancient history, as the Netflix series, Ancient Apocalypse, and maverick author and archaeologist David Hancock have been proving for a while now, seriously rocking the leaky boat of established ideas.

Brilliant teams of researchers have been unravelling the secrets of the skull since January. They identify her as a woman of about 30 years, with a stunningly long deliberately elongated cranial orb, theorized to be of high cast because of her jeweled smile and surgical enhancements. But that last part is definitely a guess.

Upon washing and meticulously polishing her skull, the researchers presented the world with images of a golden-glitter, and aquamarine dentally-enhanced skeletal grimace that should rank among the pin up favorites of dentists all over the galaxy.

Named The Woman of Tlailotlacan after the location she was found inside the ancient city, she was revealed to have had her top two teeth artfully and with extremely enduring skill, embedded with pyrite stones – a mineral resembling gold, which even after 1600 years in the grave gives her an undeniable glamour.

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They say, based on finds from other cultures, such as the Mayans, artificial cranial deformation was likely done in infancy using bindings to grow the skull outwards, possibly to signal social status – but others have far more curious theories.

The surrounding pyramids, for example, are a mystery in themselves – how were they built, why, and with what tools and engineering from an era without known power, tools or complex metals? Was there a link between the skull, the brain, the cosmos, architecture and culture that lies hidden in forensics and monuments?

Why do ancient cultures everywhere revere the powers of Sun, Moon, winged serpents, constellations, gems, and how did they lift those stones and align them to the equinoxes with precision within millimeters? How did they achieve implants without drills and hygiene?

Ancient Origins magazine acknowledged these lost people as, “masters of cosmetic dentistry”.

“Tiny holes were chipped out of teeth and 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. The dentists likely had a sophisticated knowledge of tooth anatomy because they knew how to drill into teeth without hitting the pulp inside,” they said.

What’s certainly true is that almost nothing is known about how or why the golden dental inlays were made, how they adhered for over 1500 years, or why these materials were chosen. Nothing has been discovered about ancient dentistry of this kind, say explorers, since a previous Mexican team discovered 2,500-year-old Native American remains with gems in their teeth back in 2009.

“It’s possible some type of [herb-based] anesthetic was applied prior to drilling to blunt any pain,” team member José Concepción Jiménez, from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, told National Geographic, back then – which is a bit obvious and dodges the more alarming questions.

Like what were the drills made of, and how were they powered? And what other dental procedures for pain, medical, ornamental or aesthetics were understood and in demand back before we had electricity, diamond heads, disinfectants, laser, hi-tech glues, bonds and x-ray?

These are delicious questions to consider, and to inspire the suburban dentist of the 21 Century to marvel at the lost roots of our great art.

There are some easy places to start.

For example, National Geographic reported in 2014 that nibbling a horrible-tasting and noxious weed had been a well-understood dental life-saver in Africa more than 2000 years ago.

“… purple nutsedge is one of the world’s worst weeds, spreading stealthily underground and shrugging off herbicides as if they were soda water,” wrote Geographic, announcing research on skeletons in Sudan proved the plant was being eaten, and theorizing it solved the mystery of why these people had such incredibly good teeth.

“… when scientists looked at the teeth of people buried roughly 2,000 years ago in an ancient cemetery, they found that fewer than one percent of the teeth had cavities, abscesses, or other signs of tooth decay.”

But what else did the ancients understand about dental plants, oral health, dental surgery, implants? And what did Aztec dentists and their ancient colleagues from Egypt, Peru, Australia, Africa have in their tool kits and surgeries?

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