Maya Maya

Maya Dentistry

In this age of body-piercing and other body adornments it might be interesting to look back at what the Mayas did to their teeth.

The Mayas were a peaceful people with a highly developed culture who inhabited the Yucatan Peninsula as well as present-day Guatemala and Honduras. The nation's history began about 2500 B.C., but the culture flourished from about 300 A.D. to about 900 A.D. They were accomplished smelters and forgers of gold, silver, and bronze in addition to being highly skilled in cutting, polishing, and engraving precious and semiprecious stones.

Despite these skills, they did not perform restorative or corrective dental procedures. The skills they developed for working on teeth were for ritual or religious purposes. The Mayas were skilled in the fabrication and placement of beautifully carved stone inlays in precisely prepared cavities in the front teeth. These inlays were made of various minerals, including jadeite, iron pyrites, hematite, turquoise, quartz, serpentine, and cinnabar.

Mayan teeth The teeth of this Mayan skull of the ninth century A.D. have numerous inlays of jade and turquoise. Also note how the upper front teeth have been filed, particularly the decorative front two teeth.

A round, hard tube was spun between the hands or in a rope drill, with a slurry of powdered quartz in water as an abrasive, to cut a perfectly round hole through the tooth enamel. The inlay was then cemented into place. The stone inlay was ground to fit the cavity so precisely that many have remained in the teeth for thousands of years.

mayan tools mayan tools These are some of the tools the Mayas might have used to prepare the teeth for the inlays. On the left is the hollowed tube used to cut the tooth enamel. On the right is the bow drill which was used to spin the tube which cut the enamel.

The Mayas also filed their teeth in various ways. It is probable that each design had a particular tribal or religious significance; or possibly it was done for more frivolous reasons such as vanity. More than fifty different patterns have been identified.

Mayan dentist
This is a representation of a
Mayan "dentist" at work!

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