Planet Earth

Jaguar Dentures Represent Oldest Known Dentistry in the Americas

Researchers say 4,500 years ago, some Mexicans hacked off their own teeth to the gum line and plugged in jaguar dentures.

By Britt PetersonOct 10, 2006 12:00 AM


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Archaeologists working in the Veracruz region of Mexico have turned up evidence of a spooky, 4,500-year-old cat-worshipping man who had his teeth filed down to stubs so he could run around in a set of jaguar fangs. That's not as weird as it sounds —human-jaguar hybrids were central to many ancient American rituals: The Maya, for example, worshipped jaguars, and the Aztecs had armies of costumed "jaguar knight" warriors.

According to James Chatters of AMEC Earth and Environmental, who examined the skeleton, the bones and filed-down teeth represent not only the oldest dental procedure known in the Americas but also the earliest evidence of ceremonial activity in Mexico. The man was about 30 years old, his bones showed no signs of vigorous physical activity, and he was buried in a painted rock shelter. Despite his soft life, he suffered for his special status. The teeth had been filed off at the gum line, a bloody procedure that exposed the pulp cavity. "There's a good chance blood poisoning brought him down," Chatters says, adding that dental infections were a leading cause of death in prehistory.

Although the actual fang dentures weren't found at the site, Chatters suspects such a prosthesis is the most likely explanation for the procedure, given the high frequency of humans with jaguar teeth in iconography of the Olmec, Mayan, and Aztecan cultures and the prevalence of such dentures in the region about 2,000 years later. In those cases, however, teeth tended to be knocked out instead of filed down, a less deadly alternative.

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