EARLY HUMANS were susceptible to one of the same beliefs we hold dear today: healthy teeth mean youth, health, vigour, and good reproductive potential, whereas toothlessness means weakness and disease.
Ancient people gave teeth mystical qualities. Teeth were believed to hold magical powers; decorating or mutilating teeth made them more powerful. In ancient Mayan civilizations, teeth were inlaid with jade and turquoise. In ancient Japan, women dyed their teeth black with tannin powder as proof of their married status. Decorating or mutilating teeth did not prevent toothache or tooth loss.
The Babylonians, Egyptians, and Chinese believed their gods were responsible for toothaches. When prayers and incantations failed, they resorted to biting the heads off of live mice, kissing donkeys (Hasn’t everyone kissed an ass once in their life?), or rinsing their mouth with morning urine from a child, preferably male.
To rid themselves of toothaches, the Chinese also tried using celibacy, which was rejected as being worse than the toothaches. By the early second century, the Chinese were using arsenic to treat toothaches. They began to practise acupuncture to treat toothaches in 2700 BC. Nothing worked to rid them of the malady, but they kept on trying.
By the 13th Century, the Chinese were practising restorative dentistry by covering teeth with thin pieces of gold, either to hold them in place, or for aesthetic reasons. People still do this after so many years.
The oldest burial place and earliest evidence of dental modification in the Americas dates from 2570 to 2322 BC, and was discovered in 2003. The Central American man’s upper front teeth were filed down to expose the pulp cavities to install a ceremonial denture, including the palate of a jaguar or a wolf.
Ancient cultures held similar beliefs regarding toothaches, which were passed down from ancient Mesopotamia 4000 years ago. Until the beginning of the eighteenth century, people around the world believed that tooth worms caused their torturous toothaches by appearing spontaneously, or boring their way into teeth.
After entering a tooth, the worm’s wiggling caused severe pain. If the pain stopped, they believed the worm was resting. A 2000-year-old text states: “When the tooth becomes hollow and filled with food and dirt, fine worms arise through the decay, and there results severe pain.” People coated their tormenting teeth with honey, and waited all night with tweezers to pluck the tooth worm out as soon as it appeared. There is no proof that a tooth worm ever appeared.
Hindus consider the mouth the gateway to the body and, therefore, insist that it be kept scrupulously clean. In approximately 650 AD, the great Indian surgeon, Vagbhata, suggested eliminating tooth worms by “filling a cavity in a carious tooth with wax and then burning it out with a heated probe.”
The great Islamic physician, Avicenna, used fumigation to expel tooth worms.
In ancient Rome, Emperor Claudius’ personal physician suggested “burning henbane seeds, and fumigating the mouth with its vapours to drive out the tooth worms.” Now, henbane is a poisonous plant from the nightshade family, and its seeds are still used in some parts of the world as a domestic remedy for toothaches. The seeds are heated on a hotplate and their smoke is funneled into the mouth. Sometimes a poultice is made from the crushed drug. The leaves and seeds have been smoked in pipes as a remedy for neuralgia and rheumatism. The seeds were a favourite remedy for toothache in the Middle Ages, but dangerous. Henbane causes convulsions, and even insanity in some instances. Henbane is used with great risk, because it is uncertain and violent in its effect.
In the 16th Century, John Gerard wrote about Henbane seed, used by mountebanks for persistent toothaches: “Drawers of teeth, who run about the country and pretend they cause worms to come forth from the teeth by burning the seed in a chafing dish of coals, the party holding his mouth over the fume thereof, do have some crafty companions who convey small lute strings into the water, perusing the patient that these little creepers came out his mouth, or other parts which it was intended to ease.”
Another 16th Century writer was quoted as saying: “These pretended worms are no more than an appearance of worms, which is always seen in the smoke of Henbane seed. As a matter of fact, the small cylindrical embryos of the seed are forced out of some them by heat , and these were mistaken by ignorant sufferers for ‘worms’ coming out of the teeth.’
People in some parts of the world still believe demons invading the teeth as worms cause cavities. We understand that it was the destruction of the nerves in the dental pulp, not the death of tooth worms, which brought relief from toothaches during ancient times. Next week, we will examine what really causes toothache, and it’s certainly not decayed teeth. Nor tooth worms!