Did We Discover the World’s Oldest Dental Implant?

Jun 03, 2014, by Dr. Becky Coats

Researchers say they have discovered the world’s oldest dental implant along with the remains of a woman who died about 2300 years ago. This implant is about 400 years older than previously discovered examples. It seems that it was placed for purely cosmetic reasons, but we’re not sure whether it was placed before or after death.

“A Refined and Ostentatious Elite”

Skull of an Archaeology SiteResearchers say they discovered the dental implant in the tomb of wealthy individuals, located at Le Chene, about 19 miles southeast of Paris. Although the chamber collapsed, severely damaging the skeletons, the class of people was identifiable from the types of jewelry present, including bronze, coral, and amber pieces.

Discovery of the implant was not immediate. Because the chamber had collapsed, the skull was smashed, and the teeth were all loose. Researchers photographed the site, then collected the teeth and took them back to the lab for analysis. When they began to study the teeth, researchers realized they had 31 teeth and a metal post. They then went back to their pictures of the site and found that the post was placed among the teeth where the missing tooth should have been. Because it was about the same size as the teeth, they propose that it was a dental implant.

Losing one tooth makes this woman about average for the time, depending on her age. Other Iron Age burials suggest that upper-class women lost one or two teeth by age 35 (and only about 30% of women lived past that age), although the poor state of the skeleton makes it impossible to determine the age.

How Did the Restoration Work?

Because of the poor state of the skeleton, there are many unanswered questions about the dental implant. We don’t know whether it was placed before or after death. We don’t know whether it was crowned with a wood or ivory crown.

Researchers believe it was likely that the pin was placed after death as a cosmetic restoration to make the person more attractive in the afterlife. The Egyptians used replacement teeth in a similar way, although the Etruscans (who had contact with this Celtic population) are believed to have made functional dentures. The pin would have been hammered into place, which would have been very painful, and not likely to be undertaken while the subject was alive. They also believe that an aesthetic crown was used, but that this likely decayed because it was made of less durable material.

This dental implant shows us that people have always considered a full smile to be important, not just for this life, but for whatever comes after. Full findings about this discovery are published in the journal Antiquity.