(ORDO NEWS) — The Maya loved their trinkets and often adorned their teeth with precious stones. But it may not have been all just for show.
A new study by the Center for Research and Advanced Research at the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City has found that the glues the Maya used to attach gemstones to their teeth may have had antibacterial properties, promoting oral health.
When the London Accounts of Mortality was published in England in the early 16th century, listing the leading causes of death, “teeth” was listed in the top five. However, a new study of Maya teeth shows that if a similar census were being taken in Mexico at the same time, “teeth” would not even make the list!
Emerging around 1000 BC, the Mayan civilization developed rapidly and reached its peak between 300 and 900 AD. Dominating the southeast of Mexico and the countries of Central America – Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador – hundreds of independent agricultural states ruled huge ceremonial cities.
The Maya were famous for building elaborate ceremonial palaces, pyramid temples and astronomical observatories, and for decorating their teeth with colored stones.
It was long believed that Maya tooth modification was only done for ritual purposes, but a new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science suggests that Maya dental techniques also contributed to overall oral hygiene.
The team wrote that the ancient Maya “believed that their breath was a connection with the divine.” Therefore, in order to ritually cleanse the mouth, Maya teeth were polished, drilled and serrated.
And in some cases, the front teeth have been encrusted with precious stones, including “jadeite, iron pyrites, hematite, turquoise, quartz, serpentine and cinnabar,” says Dr. Gloria Hernandez Bolio, a biochemist at the Center for Research and Advanced Research at the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico.
In the new study, the professor and her colleagues analyzed sealants taken from eight tooth samples from different locations across the Maya empire.
First, based on the absorption of light, the scientists grouped organic compounds, then separated the chemical mixtures using high heat and counted the individual molecules.
The study identified 150 organic plant resin molecules, mostly from pine trees, which together acted as glue. The scientists divided the four separate blends into categories based on where they were made.
Pine tar is known to attack the bacteria that cause plaque and eventually tooth decay. However, two glue samples contained sclereolid from the Salvia plant.
In the modern world, sclereolide is used to bind perfume to the skin, and more recently it has been used as a weight loss drug. However, in the Maya culture, apparently, this substance was valued for its antibacterial and antifungal properties.
Study co-author Vera Tisler, a bioarchaeologist at the Autonomous University of Yucatán, says Mayan dentists drilled holes in enamel and dentine, “then set stones and applied sealant, usually as part of a rite of passage to adulthood.”
The new analysis, Tisler said, suggests that the sealant used to hold the dentures in place also had therapeutic properties for oral hygiene. Tisler refers to Janaab’ Pakal, a Mayan king of Palenque who died in AD 612 at the age of 80. He not only died with almost all his teeth, but also “without signs of caries.”
Mayan dentists rotated thin copper tubes in their hands, which served as drills, and powdered quartz mixed with water served as an abrasive. After they drilled holes in the tooth enamel, the last inlay stones were finely shaped to fit the cavities.
At this point, dentists applied glue to keep the stones in place. Earlier studies found inorganic materials similar to cement in mixtures, but scientists could not figure out the chemical composition of tooth-binding substances for a long time.
Christina Verdugo, an anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says the new study “finally solves the longstanding question of how these rocks were attached.” In addition, the study suggests that in addition to the secrets of shaping and drilling teeth, Mayan dentists also knew the secrets of preventing post-surgical infections.
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