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Oldest Example of Mesoamerican Dentistry Found in Ancient Grave

June 17, 2006|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

A 4,500-year-old grave in the Mexican state of Michoacan has revealed a macabre example of ancient dentistry -- the skull of a young man whose upper teeth had been modified to accept a denture made from the palate and teeth of a wolf or panther.

Although cavities were drilled out of teeth as long as 9,000 years ago, this unexpected modification is the oldest known dentistry discovered in the Americas, predating previously discovered filed teeth and jeweled inlays by at least 1,000 years.

The dentures themselves were not found, but the alterations to the teeth were typical of those associated with such dentures found in later periods, according to archaeologist Tricia Gabany-Guerrero of the University of Connecticut, who announced the find Wednesday.

The 30-year-old man, nicknamed "Huitsiniki," or the "Bald Man" by the Purepecha community in the area, may have suffered severely from the dentures. The filing exposed the pulp of his teeth, and two of them were badly infected. Although the cause of his death is unknown, the team speculates that he died of blood poisoning from the infections.

The body was found beneath a massive panel of rock art, suggesting the man was a prince or religious leader. That speculation is supported by bone evidence indicating that the young man did not work strenuously, according to Gabany-Guerrero, who led the team that made the discovery.

The burial also contained obsidian flakes from a place called Cerro Varal in eastern Michoacan, "very far from where he is buried," Gabany-Guerrero said in a statement. "This means people were mining and trading, and moving it very early" in the history of this region.

The rock art panel, which contains stick figures apparently posed in dance positions, also contains calendar and other symbols that tie this region to the rest of Mesoamerica, she said.

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