Ancient Mexican Fang Dentures (ca. 2570 – 2322 BC)

By: The Scribe on Monday, July 30, 2007



These 4,500-year-old teeth from Mexico were probably filed down to fit a set of dentures made from a jaguar or wolf’s mouth.

At the oldest known burial site in Mesoamerica, archaeologists discovered a set of skeletal remains that appear to be evidence of the earliest known dental work on this side of the world – which probably caused the patient excruciating pain, and in all likelihood leading to his death.

The teeth from the burial were filed down over an extended period of time, for the purpose of accommodating a second set of teeth – namely, a ceremonial set of ‘dentures’ that would have been inserted into the mouth along the upper jaw. According to forensic analysis done on the entire skeleton’s jaw, the bottom row of teeth was worn down normally, while the upper teeth were intentionally filed to make room for the denture – not to mention that the denture was most probably the palate of a jaguar or wolf.

Although the look of fangs while wearing this set of false teeth certainly would have intensified the man’s ceremonial appearance, in order to fit the animal denture inside his mouth, his own teeth were actually filed down to the nub – resulting in the exposure of his pulp cavities. Unless there was use of a local anesthetic – some herbal solution, perhaps? – this process would have been excruciatingly painful, and the exposed area would have allowed an infection to develop inside one of the exposed cavities, eventually leading toward his death.

The rest of the burial revealed the skull, leg, hand and foot bones of a healthy male who died somewhere between 28 and 32 years old. During his life, he was around five feet and one inch tall, and intriguingly enough, the stress and wear on the bones was surprisingly low. This indicates that the man led a highly sedentary life, regardless of the fact that the burial site was at a high altitude – 8,860 feet – that would have required a significant amount of physical exertion to carry out simple daily routines.

Thus, the denture man must have been a member of the community who was carefully cared for, probably to ensure he could fulfill a ceremonial role. To add fuel to the theory, it should be noted that the burial was actually located under a cliff wall filled with elaborate paintings of humans dancing and hunting. The iconography of the painting is also consistent with other known Mesoamerican artistic symbols.

While the thought of filing down one’s teeth for the purpose of wearing fang dentures is different enough in itself, the burial is important for another reason as well: before this find, there were no other burials or archaeological remains to suggest a social hierarchy in Mesoamerica during this period. Although one burial certainly isn’t enough evidence to draw full conclusions, it is an intriguing insight into a period of Central American history where very little is currently known.

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