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» Articles -> Smile Magazine Issue 2 May 2006-> Dentistry in Ancient Civilizations
Dated : 2006-05-01
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Dentistry in Ancient Civilizations

 » By: Dr. Alaeddin Abu Khalaf

          BDS. MSc
          Orthodontist / private practice



Toothache was treated in ancient world with simple methods differ according to the civilization. The first development of dental care began in the Egyptian Empire (Pharos) around 3000 BC. Whereas the rules of Hamurabi brought "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" law in Mesopotamia. Later on, the Chinese invented the first tooth brush.


The first developments in medicine and dentistry occurred in the Egyptian Empire which was established in 3000 BC around the Nile. Hesi-re, which is believed to be the first tooth expert (dentist) in the world along with Impotek, the God of medicine, they both grew up in Egypt which was the center of medicine in the ancient world around the year 2600 BC. Many excavations around the Egyptian pyramids have shown that the Egyptians paid great attention to teeth cleaning. Moreover, higher class Egyptians had special servants to do their hair and clean their teeth. Also, many prescriptions that were used by the ancient Egyptians to strengthen their teeth and stop toothache have been discovered during the excavations. The following prescription is an example of what the Egyptians used to strengthen their teeth:
   • One measure of ground rock salt
   • One measure of red ochre
   • One measure of honey
These measures were mixed well and the mixture was applied to the teeth under pressure.

Many other prescriptions were used by the ancient Egyptians for the relief of the inflammation of gum (gingivitis), tooth erosion, inflammation of the pulp (pulpitis) and relief of toothache. Some of these prescriptions have been still used till today. In Egypt, doctors were known as "sjnw", and they were shown in hieroglyphics scripts with an arrow and an oil jar. Whereas, dentists didn't take the same name "sjnw" and they were not shown in hieroglyphics. Dentists were symbolled with an eye and a horizontal piece of ivory, and their hierarchic classes were added to them. Five wooden tablets (plaques) in the Step Pyramid belong to Hesi-re and they contain his pictures and titles. 

         » On the Shields Hesi-Re the first dentist and his other title

Tooth for a tooth

Mesopotamian diseases are often blamed on pre-existing spirits: gods, ghosts, etc. However, each spirit was held responsible for only one of what we would call a disease in any one part of the body. So usually "Hand of God X" of the stomach corresponds to what we call a disease of the stomach. A number of diseases simply were identified by names, "bennu" for example.
Clay tablets contained more than 100,000 cuneiform scripts belonging to the Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians who lived in Mesopotamia were collected. In 700 BC, Asurbanipal, the Assyrian king, collected these scripts in a library built in Ninova. Among these tablets there were some parts about toothache. The laws of Hamurabi, which had been responsible for the lack of surgical development, brought social and legal responsibilities to doctors for the first time. Among these rules that reached us today is "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth". If the person damaged the tooth of another person of the same social class, then his tooth should be removed. However, if he damaged the tooth of another person of lower social class, he was fined 166 gr of silver to be paid to the other person.
By examining the surviving medical tablets it is clear that there were two distinct types of professional medical practitioners in ancient Mesopotamia who also treated toothaches. The first type of practitioner was the ashipu, in older accounts of Mesopotamian medicine often called a "sorcerer." One of the most important roles of the ashipu was to diagnose the ailment. In the case of internal diseases, this most often meant that the ashipu determined which god or demon was causing the illness. The ashipu could also attempt to cure the patient by means of charms and spells that were designed to entice away or drive out the spirit causing the disease. The ashipu could also refer the patient to a different type of healer called an asu. He was a specialist in herbal remedies, and in older treatments of Mesopotamian medicine was frequently called "physician" because he dealt in what were often classifiable as empirical applications of medication.

First Toothbrush

Although the Chinese were a closed society, they were superior in medicine and dentistry. The oldest medical book known in china "Nei Ching" (the laws of medicine) was devoted to Huang-Ti (the yellow emperor). There are two chapters about toothache and gum diseases in the book. Nine types of toothache are described in the book. Gargling and gum massage are recommended for the treatment. Other recommendations include pills made of garlic to stop toothache, some bat parts to avoid tooth decay and bat's feces to whiten the teeth. Mouth diseases in Nei Ching are divided into three types: inflammatory diseases, soft tissue diseases and tooth decay. According to the book, mouth diseases and toothaches causes hot-cold imbalance of the body (fever), while loose teeth results from inflammatory diseases.

In the 13th century medicine was divided into 13 branches and dentistry is one of them. Acupuncture, which has an important role in Chinese medicine, has located 26 acupuncture points for toothache and 6 points for gum diseases. In addition, a paste made of musk and a ginger powder was frequently used in order to whiten teeth in ancient China. The Chinese who wished to have beautiful teeth used their nails, piece of wood and knifes to clear remnants of food from their teeth.
The first toothbrush was made by the Chinese in the 15th century. Also they recommended the use the amalgam which was called the silver dough and placed on decayed teeth. Even today it is said that loose teeth caused by gun diseases are still extracted by the hand in some markets in China!



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