It’s easy to overlook the importance of orthodontics in human history. There were no great wars fought over overbites and, from what I understand, none of the seven wonders were built in homage to healthy smiles (though no one can prove the Colossus of Rhodes didn’t wear braces).
But the truth is that humans have been working on a better bite for most of recorded history, and our great advancements in orthodontic practices and technologies have allowed us to live longer, happier lives.
For most of human history, the health of one’s teeth was quite literally a matter of life or death. For roughly the first 99 percent of the time humans have tromped about the globe, life expectancy was about 25 years. (Compare that to today’s global average of 67 or the U.S. average of 79.) Obviously dental problems weren’t the leading cause of death — what with rampant diseases and the occasional war — but it certainly took its toll. People used to die from their teeth. That was a thing.
A bad bite or broken teeth couldn’t properly chew the tough meat that was central to the hunter-gatherer diet, which meant eating less and getting fewer nutrients out of what was swallowed. Besides making it easier to swallow, chewing food makes digestion much more efficient and effective. For hunter-gatherers, who occupied about 90 percent of human history, every nutrient was crucial.
The agricultural revolution didn’t make life any easier for the teeth. The Neolithic grindstones used to process cereal grains often left bits of sand and stone in the food, which eroded enamel and wore down teeth. Despite having diets free of pop and candy, early humans still got plenty of cavities. Left untreated, cavities can spread to other teeth and leave one toothless, or lead to a potentially fatal abscess.
But agriculture allowed people to develop other skills, which led to…
THE FIRST DENTIST!
Evidence of dentistry first appears in the Indus Valley Civilization at about 7000 B.C.E. (These impressive people also built cities with sanitation systems long before Europe and invented the flush toilet… in the 26th Century B.C.E.!) The first dentists operated on teeth with a bow drill, which sounds painful, but was clearly preferable to the alternative.
It’s impossible to know what, exactly, inspired these first dentists to treat painful tooth problems by counter-intuitively drilling into the teeth. Of course, now we know that they were right, but we all owe a debt of gratitude to the brave individual who agreed to be the first patient. We also know, thanks to a Sumerian text from 5000 B.C.E., that many ancient people believed dental problems were caused by “tooth worms.” Luckily for us all, they were wrong.
The Egyptians shared this belief, but, lest you think they were oral slouches, they also gave us… wait for it…
THE FIRST BRACES! (kind of)
Egyptian mummies have been found with metal bands wrapped around their teeth (they likely used catgut for orthodontic wires) and some even show signs of oral surgery. Pyramids, shmyramids. What has the Sphinx done for me lately? In my book, braces were one of Egypt’s greatest contributions to the world.
So, that’s how it all began. In Part II, we’ll check in with a couple of Greeks and have a much-needed conversation about George Washington.