Mayan Tooth Inlays (Odd Mods Part 1)
When you think of the Mayan’s body modification, you probably think of stretched lobes or septums, or maybe lip or nostril piercings. But one form of modification that the Mayan’s practiced doesn’t get much press: Tooth inlays.
That’s the process of taking something like a gemstone or a piece of jade and putting in into a hole bored into a tooth. The Mayans also practiced tooth filing and sharpening, sometimes honing a tooth to a sharp point and other times filing it flat except for a symmetrical pair of nubs sticking out like teeth on gears. It’s also nice to note that they were doing this in the 8th century CE, about 1100 years ago. Traditionally, this was not a great century for dentistry.
Why would someone go through this pain?
It’s hard to say for certain, but legends that appear across many cultures throughout human history point to a combination of toothworms and demonic possession. Yeah, that’s right. We’re going deep this week into the world of demonic dentistry.
So the first thing to imagine is that someone is probably already in pain or anticipating pain. Toothaches are a major problem throughout the ancient world. Everybody gets them. And in some societies, toothworms that live in your skull and eat your teeth from the inside are considered to be the culprit, according to Loretta Francis Ichord in Toothworms and Spider Juice: An Illustrated History of Dentistry.
Ichord cites a poem from Sumeria, dated to 3000 years ago, that tells the story of a worm who begs the gods for food, and says:
“Lift me up and among the teeth
And the gums cause me to dwell!
The blood of the tooth will I suck,
And of the gum will I gnaw the roots!”
The legends are thought to refer to the pulp of the tooth, which sort of looks like a worm. Imagine: It’s a thousand years ago and you have a toothache. Someone pulls the tooth. In the root of the tooth you see this weird fleshy tail hanging out. You don’t know what nerves are, so you figure this “worm” is what was causing the tooth ache.
Another widespread idea about toothaches from many ancient societies was that you had A) Displeased an evil spirit, or B) An evil spirit was living in your tooth.
How do you cure haunted teeth? Maybe you drill a hole in there and stick a gemstone or pretty rock in place to ward off evil.
It doesn’t take much for such practices to spread and become a form of preventative dentistry. Want to keep demons and toothworms away? Why not get some stone inlays put in now and save yourself a toothache later?
Others have suggested that the dental inlays might have been of great social value. According to Dr. Vera Tiesler’s study, Head
Shaping and Dental Decoration Among the Ancient Maya: Archeological and Cultural Aspects, there were more woman than men getting the dental inlays, with about 65% of women getting them versus 58% of men. Patterns were observed in the inlays, but no patterns were distinctly used by either men or women. According to Tiesler, the incidence of dental inlays did not increase with social standing or privilege, so it wasn’t a sign you were rich, or a major political figure.
So why, really, did the Mayans do it?
Unfortunately, the Mayans didn’t say. It might have been a combination of all of these factors, or it might have been something no one has thought of yet. Maybe it started with toothworms and got elevated to simple decorations that folks just had to have.
It’s not unusual for Mayan skulls to retain their inlays even after being buried for a millennium. So how was it managed without modern dental tools or dental cement?
The answer is with great skill. It was an intense process to carve out the hole for a dental inlay. Round sticks or pieces of horn were either heated in fires or tipped in quartz dust depending on where you were at, and then using the hands or a rope the stick was spun at high speed to carve a hole.
The most common materials to use for the inlays were jade, pyrite, hematite and turquoise. The inlays tended to be about 3mm in diameter and were very thin. They matched the size of the hole drilled in the tooth precisely, and, according to The Dental Cosmos, edited by J. D. White, no cementing materials were detectable. In other words, it was done the way that the Mayan’s incredible stonework was done, so precisely that it was a perfect fit.
Tooth inlays were most popular for a two hundred year window, from about 700 CE to about 900 CE. They trailed off among men first, and eventually fell out of favor with women as well.
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