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The Bling of the Ancients 61

Posted by samzenpus
from the the-oldest-school dept.
If you think hip-hop stars like Flavor Flav started the craze of jewel-studded teeth, you'd be wrong. A new study shows that Native Americans were using sophisticated dentistry techniques to add bling to their smiles 2,500 years ago. These ancient people used notches, grooves, and semiprecious gems to beautify their teeth. According to the study, the dentistry was for purely cosmetic purposes. "They were not marks of social class," says José Concepción Jiménez, an anthropologist at Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History.

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The Bling of the Ancients

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  • by Lord_Frederick (642312) on Friday May 22, 2009 @02:42PM (#28057427)

    Maybe they should have increased their weapons research budget instead.

  • Cosmetics (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CarpetShark (865376) on Friday May 22, 2009 @02:49PM (#28057545)

    the dentistry was for purely cosmetic purposes. "They were not marks of social class,"

    Hmm. Methinks that all cosmetics are about improving your social class, and the quality of those cosmetics indicates which social class you can get away with claiming to be part of.

    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Methinks you're used to the modern age too much, and even a bit naive about that. Social class has rarely been mutable thing; even in those rare ages when it has been mutable, there's usually been a stigma attached to being out of your "natural" class. Old books are filled with tales of people who have money but lack social standing. Modern America has some of the least-formed class structures, but money and profession have taken up much of the role of stratifying people. Even so, there are still remnants o
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by CarpetShark (865376)

        Actually I just listened to people talking on the radio the other day about how modern western culture has much less social mobility than in the past. People are more and more isolated these days, and much more commoditised, with rising populations, formulaic CVs as a test of skills, etc. So it stands to reason that it's HARDER to prove your worth and make your mark, not easier.

      • by Nutria (679911)

        people who discriminate between "new money" and "old money".

        Even in Boston, "old money" was once "new money", and in a generation or two, new money becomes old money.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by StikyPad (445176)

      It's the difference between 24k gold teeth, and 24k gold plated teeth. With plastic spinners.

      • by Nutria (679911)

        It's the difference between 24k gold teeth, and 24k gold plated teeth. With plastic spinners.

        As funny as that is, the only people with tatoos in the "upper crust of society" are pseudo-rebellious college students who get them burned off as soon as they enter the business world or the matriarch controlling the trust fund hears that Missy has a tramp stamp.

        • by StikyPad (445176)

          That group you describe exists, although I've always managed to avoid them. But there are certainly an entirely larger section of tattoo recipients who get them because their fathers had them, or their villages, or even their relatively recently minted gang. Particulary look at the flesh between the thumb and forefinger of otherwise well-heeled and clean-cut women. You may see what appear to be beauty marks, or simple dots, or small religious symbols -- these signs mean the woman are owned, and you'd be

    • the dentistry was for purely cosmetic purposes. "They were not marks of social class,"

      Hmm. Methinks that all cosmetics are about improving your social class, and the quality of those cosmetics indicates which social class you can get away with claiming to be part of.

      Actions can only determine social class in meritocratic cultures.

      If this was a caste culture, then cosmetics might have made someone more important within their class, but... an Untouchable cannot become a Brahmin. Perhaps Jimenez meant that the cosmetics were not indicative of any particular social class.

    • by Artifakt (700173)

      This seems to have been part of the more settled, agricultural Native American cultures, which means there as a huge population percentage that were farmers, and as usual not all farmers were socially equal (Just picture a southern plantation owner and a white sharecropper in 19th century America, living on the same road with adjacent fields, both counting as farmers and further selected as members of the favored race in their society. By some anthropological models, these would be counted as the same class

  • by 0xdeadbeef (28836) on Friday May 22, 2009 @02:49PM (#28057547) Homepage Journal

    "They were not marks of social class"

    Well, that's not surprising. They aren't now, either.

  • Were they marks of a lack of class?

  • From the FA: The dentists likely had a sophisticated knowledge of tooth anatomy, Jiménez added. For example, they knew how to drill into teeth without hitting the pulp inside, he said.
    "They didn't want to generate an infection or provoke the loss of a tooth or break a tooth."


    The first person to invent time travel will make a killing.
    • I refuse to accept wampum as a currency.
      • by Culture20 (968837)

        I refuse to accept wampum as a currency.

        If traveling to the 1980's, I'd gladly except in-box, never opened Wampas.

        • by Culture20 (968837)
          Oh goodness, I hate it when I get into an audio-thinking mode instead of visual-thinking.
          cat Parent | sed -i -e 's/except/accept/'
          • I'll give you a Useless Use of Cat award for that.
            • by Culture20 (968837)

              cat Parent | sed -i -e 's/except/accept/'

              I'll give you a Useless Use of Cat award for that.

              Heh. I was originally going to echo my original, then got the idea to think of my Parent as a file. Didn't edit the original line enough. Oopsie.
              Of course, maybe I could get another award...
              cat Parent | cat | cat | cat | cat | cat | cat | cat | ... LAMENESS ... | cat | cat | cat | cat | sed -i -e 's/except/accept/'

    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      > They knew how to drill ... without hitting the pulp.

      They knew that the second time they tried it.

      The first guy? His is the skull with the teeth missing, so we don't know whether they hit the pulp or not, but I bet we can guess.

  • The early dentists used a drill-like device with a hard stone such as obsidian, which is capable of puncturing bone. "It's possible some type of [herb based] anesthetic was applied prior to drilling to blunt any pain," Jiménez said. The ornamental stones--including jade--were attached with an adhesive made out of natural resins, such as plant sap, which was mixed with other chemicals and crushed bones, Jiménez said.

    Oh yeah, sign me up!

  • And he knows this HOW?

    It takes two to do this, the ersatz Dentist and the willing patient.

    The Patient needed to endure a lot of pain, no Novocain in those days, and no one would go thru this, and no one would PRACTICE this Medicine or Magic (as the case may be) without some perceived social benefit.

    How can one say 2500 years after the fact that these were not marks of a Social Class? It seem far more likely the anthropologist's understanding of the social class structure is seriously flawed.

    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      They may not have had Novocain, but taking cocaine wasn't illegal back then.

      Social class would be ascertained by other factors. For example, how did we know the pharaoh of old were really important (and of high social class)? Duh, the care that was taken of their bodies and the treasures surrounding them.

    • by h4rr4r (612664) on Friday May 22, 2009 @03:21PM (#28058023)

      I am going to guess you never tried coke in college.

      That fun powder is made from coca leaves which would be fine for numbing teeth for dental work.

      Social class means different things to an anthropologist. He most likely means that this form of decoration was not reserved for a privileged group, such as chiefs, witchdoctors or priests. It may well have only been the better off tribesmen doing, but it was not restricted to one class or another.

    • by radtea (464814) on Friday May 22, 2009 @03:27PM (#28058095)

      And he knows this HOW?

      One of the great things about New World archeology is that so little is known that it's easy for experts to project their hopes, dreams and fears onto their finds.

      Because we have a reasonable idea of what was going on in Europe and Asia and Africa 2500 years ago anyone suggesting the use of cosmetic dentistry for reasons other than expression of social class, wealth, power, etc would be laughed at. But our ignorance of New World peoples is vast, so they make a convenient armature to hang Euro-centric notions of "noble savages" and "peaceful kingdoms" on.

      For example, the Inca--now known to be a violent, war-making civilization that was structured into an oppressive aristocracy over a downtrodden peasantry--were once believed to be entirely peaceful and relatively egalitarian. That was back in the '50's when global war was a great fear, and the myth of a "classless society" was still widely believed.

      Those false beliefs eventually yielded to fact, particularly translation of the Incan language. Today, though, if you ask an "expert" what the Inca were worried about toward the end of their empire, they'll be apt to tell you with a straight face, "climate change, soil erosion, ecological degradation..." Whereas the honest answer is, "We don't have a clue. Who knows what people whose entire conceptual universe is still barely comprehensible to us were thinking. Probably that they had displeased the gods somehow because things kept getting worse, but even that's just a guess."

      We do know there are some constants in human society. All societies have adultery, for example, and all societies have some form of conspicuous consumption or other flagrantly wasteful behaviour that is used as a marker of class, power, wealth, etc.

      When a novel social phenomenon is found in an otherwise little-understood or little-known society, it is a good bet that it'll have something to do with one of those basic, common things. At least we have good reason to believe that they existed, rather than positing that a difficult and dangerous ornamental display is for the first time ever anywhere not related to expressing the social class, power, wealth, etc of the individual involved.

      • by docbrody (1159409)
        Nice post radtea. Some one mod him up as informative.

        Here's another example: Until recently its was common knowledge that ancient greeks rarely crossed the Mediterranean sea directly, but instead held closely to the shore. Why? Because all the ship wrecks that had been found were along the shore. Well, guess what, when sonar and other imaging technology improved, we started finding ancient shipwrecks beneath the waters out in the middle of of the Mediterranean. I'll search for a link and provide it in
        • by docbrody (1159409)
          OK, so this link is dated, and its unfortunately a transcript of a VOA program. I could dig a little more for more recent articles... but im to lazy. Anyway, heres a blurb:

          An American exploration company has found the wreck of an ancient Greek ship in a very deep area of the Mediterranean Sea. It may be the deepest ancient shipwreck ever found. The discovery questions a long-held belief that ancient sailors lacked skills needed to guide ships in open seas.

          And here is a link: http://www.manythings.org/voa/01/010313sn_t.htm [manythings.org]

          Now this doesn't exactly prove the point from my earlier post, but it does support the idea radtea introduced: archeologists can make stupid assumptions, and its pretty absurd to state as fact that these tooth decorations were not a sign of social position. They may

          • by Nutria (679911)

            archeologists can make stupid assumptions

            This is why, even though I am an atheist, I could never look my fundamentalist Christian relatives in the eye and say with certainty that based solely on the archeological record that evolution was a fact.

            Only when the hard science of genomics arrived could I say with certainty that evolution is a Fact and not just neat ideas.

      • by speedtux (1307149)

        Who knows what people whose entire conceptual universe is still barely comprehensible to us were thinking. Probably that they had displeased the gods somehow because things kept getting worse, but even that's just a guess."

        So, you're saying the Incas were Republicans?

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by timeOday (582209)

      It seem far more likely the anthropologist's understanding of the social class structure is seriously flawed.

      Or it could be you. "Social class" means with wealth and power. How you can tell after 2500 years is because burial rituals are closely associated with wealth and power, people are buried in different places and with different objects or clothing depending on how wealthy they were or weren't. The Pharaohs are an extreme example.

      As for ornamentation being a certain indication of social status, l

      • by icebike (68054) on Friday May 22, 2009 @03:42PM (#28058267)

        Social Class means ALL Classes, not just those you deem to be of significance in your little power centric view of the world.

        Were the prostitutes and lap dancers all buried in specific manner? Were Entertainers and Witch Doctors entombed according to a formula? What about Soldiers, Thieves, and the petty district enforcers? How about the drug trading class?

        Would you be so naive and parochial to suggest that having a body covered with prison tats is not an indicator of social class today?

        • by timeOday (582209)

          Were the prostitutes and lap dancers all buried in specific manner? Were Entertainers and Witch Doctors entombed according to a formula? What about Soldiers, Thieves, and the petty district enforcers? How about the drug trading class?

          Are these supposed to be rhetorical questions? Buried remains may well leave clues to such things. We certainly bury soldiers according to a special formula today. I can easily imagine witch doctors, priests, government officials / tribal leaders being buried with distinct

        • by Nutria (679911)

          Would you be so naive and parochial to suggest that having a body covered with prison tats is not an indicator of social class today?

          You need to turn off (foolish) righteous indignation and re-read #28058181. Mainly the last paragraph:

          If you don't accept that example, consider drug and gang tatoos. Yes, they elevate somebody in their social group, but no, that does not equate to status in society as a whole.

        • by speedtux (1307149)

          Would you be so naive and parochial to suggest that having a body covered with prison tats is not an indicator of social class today?

          What the article meant is that these expensive and difficult modifications did not appear to be reserved for a privileged class. In a historical context, that was absolutely clear.

          Seems to me you're bringing your own cultural biases and agenda to reading this paper: you (apparently) live in a rich first world country where it doesn't surprise you where even the lowest classes

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by pz (113803)

      And he knows this HOW?

      It takes two to do this, the ersatz Dentist and the willing patient.

      The Patient needed to endure a lot of pain, no Novocain in those days, and no one would go thru this, and no one would PRACTICE this Medicine or Magic (as the case may be) without some perceived social benefit.

      How can one say 2500 years after the fact that these were not marks of a Social Class? It seem far more likely the anthropologist's understanding of the social class structure is seriously flawed.

      You didn't read the one-page article, did you?

      I'm quoting directly from it:

      But it's clear that peopleâ"mostly menâ"from nearly all walks of life opted for the look, noted José ConcepciÃn Jiménez, an anthropologist at the institute, which recently announced the findings.

      "They were not marks of social class" but instead meant for pure decoration, he commented in an e-mail interview conducted in Spanish.

      In fact, the royals of the dayâ"such as the Red Queen, a Maya mummy found in a temple at Palenque in what is now Mexicoâ"don't have teeth decorations, Jiménez said.

      Other evidence of early Mesoamerican dentistryâ"including a person who had received a ceremonial dentureâ"has also been found.

      Knowledgeable Dentists

      The early dentists used a drill-like device with a hard stone such as obsidian, which is capable of puncturing bone.

      "It's possible some type of [herb based] anesthetic was applied prior to drilling to blunt any pain," Jiménez said.

      So we have a reasonably sophisticated practioner who has well-developed tools appropriate for dental work. One paragraph further down in the article after this quotation suggests that they had reasonably good knowledge of dental anatomy and function. For the day, I'd put good money they were that society's dentists, rather than an "ersatz dentist." They were, indeed, dentists.

      Also, we have speculation that an herb based (read: coc

    • It takes two to do this, the ersatz Dentist and the willing patient.

      There is evidence to suggest they may have been unwilling patients. This is mostly based on observing the color schemes, and the %99+ mortality rate.

  • The drilling would be extremely uncomfortable without some sort of freezing. Coca leaves [wikipedia.org] can cause numbing and would likely have been the herb used in that part of the world.

    I would also not want to be the guinea pig used when they learned the structure of the tooth.
    • by Locke2005 (849178)
      I would also not want to be the guinea pig used when they learned the structure of the tooth. Right, because teeth to study never become available by falling out naturally! Don't you think there is a good chance these "dentists" practiced on already removed teeth before trying something on teeth still firmly embedded in a live patients gums? Granted, they probably did some experimenting on captured slaves too.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by sumdumass (711423)

        We still don't know if the jewels were ever inside the teeth while they were alive. It may have been part of some burial ritual for wealthy people or some way to make people interested in seeing the dead off.

        there are a lot of assumptions going on here. That's the problem with interpreting the past, you need to create a story for the finding rather then look for stories to find evidence to support.

        • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          We still don't know if the jewels were ever inside the teeth while they were alive.

          Wear and decay patterns would reveal whether this was a procedure for living patients or not. Physical anthropologists are very skilled at interpreting such things.

          I do not know what the answer would be, but I am confident an accurate answer will be forthcoming if it is not already available.

          • by sumdumass (711423)

            Wear and decay patterns on what, the jewels which are harder them teeth or the teeth that had very primitive drills making holed in them to stuffer hard jewels inside them at some time?

            Finding decayed food beyond the jewels which is probably impossible could possibility point to use while alive but the reality is that they created a story to fit what they found and none of it is fact but a probability.

    • I wouldn't either, but I would love to have been at the primal, coke-fueled after-party... 'I'd give my gold tooth to get into those furs...'
    • by EkriirkE (1075937)

      I would also not want to be the guinea pig used when they learned the structure of the tooth.

      Nor would I, they eat the guinea pigs down there. Cui

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Bad taste is timeless.

"For the man who has everything... Penicillin." -- F. Borquin

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