WASHINGTON – Thousands of years before screen idols began beautifying themselves with cosmetic dentistry, ancient Mexicans were getting ceremonial dentures.
Researchers report Wednesday that they found a 4,500-year-old burial in Mexico that had the oldest known example of dental work in the Americas.
The upper front teeth of the remains had been ground down so they could be mounted with animal teeth, possibly wolf or panther teeth, for ceremonial purposes, according to researchers led by Tricia Gabany-Guerrero of the University of Connecticut.
"It's like he was using the mouth of some other animal in his mouth," explained James Chatters, an archaeologist and paleontologist with AMEC Earth and Environmental Inc. in Seattle, Wash., and a member of the research team.
Such modifications, typically using beasts of prey, became more common centuries later in the Maya culture, Chatters said in a telephone interview, but this is the earliest example that has been found.
The individual, aged 28 to 32, would not have been able to bite with his front teeth but appears to have been well fed nonetheless, Chatters said. The body indicated he didn't do hard work, perhaps having been an important person in society.
Found in the Michoacan area, the body had been placed on a large rock with another rock on top of it, Chatters said.
"The teeth were filed down so much that their pulp cavities were exposed, leading to an infection," Gabany-Guerrero said in a statement.
"During the Late Post Classic period, shortly before the Spanish came, we have seen evidence of insertion of turquoise and filed teeth in different forms, but this is the earliest evidence of a dental modification by about one thousand years," she said.
The researchers said they found rock art and symbols related to other ancient cultures in the region, including calendar symbols.
In addition to the man's teeth, they found pieces of skull and bones from his hands, legs and feet. There was no indication of physical problems, and he did not suffer from ailments such as arthritis.
The cause of death was not clear, but the researchers said there had been active infections in two teeth.
Primary funding for the research came from the National Geographic Society with added support from foundations, academic and governmental organizations in Mexico and the United States.