What scientists believe are the oldest fillings in the world were just discovered at an archeological site, Riparo Fredian, in northern Italy near Lucca. These 13,000-year-old central incisors contain large holes in them beginning at the surface and extending all the way down to the root.
After scientists got a closer look, they found small markings in the holes in the teeth that they believe are evidence of cavities that had been removed with stone tools that were the ancient equivalent of today’s dental drill. Unlike other unearthed teeth from similar sites, the holes in these appear to have been filled with the earliest known use of a dental filling yet discovered. The scientists found bitumen along with hairs and plant fibers inside the holes in the teeth.
Bitumen is found abundantly in the east and is a petroleum derived tar or rock based asphalt. In ancient times it was used to waterproof things, as a mixture in medicines, as an adhesive, as an embalming agent for mummification and even in construction. Today, it’s used mainly in the construction of road surfaces and roofs.
Fillings have undergone many transformations over the years as science has continued to develop innovating techniques and each new material has proven safer and more effective than the last. Before this bitumen filling was discovered, the oldest known filling material was beeswax which was also found in Italy in a cave near Trieste. Metal ranging from tin to gold and silver became popular in the 19th century. This is when the silver amalgam fillings that are still used by some dentists today were introduced.
Today, composite fillings are the most popular and natural looking way to fill cavities according to Dr. Ken Collins, DDS, family and aesthetic dentist in Spokane, Washington.
“Composite fillings are tooth colored for a more natural approach that blends in with the rest of the patient’s smile,” said Collins. “Composite bonds also help support the tooth which can help protect against chipping.”
There is still a great debate on the safety of amalgam fillings, more commonly known as silver fillings. Contrary to the name, silver fillings are made up of not only silver, but also tin, copper and up to 50 percent mercury. The mercury binds the materials together so that it can be soft and pliable when being applied but can harden once placed inside the tooth successfully. Mercury poisoning is a concern for some advocated of banning the filling material. As the fillings ages, vapors are released into the body that contain mercury. Just last year, legal steps were taken to ban amalgam fillings in children under 15 and pregnant women in the European Union. Plans are in motion to eventually phase out the use of silver fillings in all 28 states in the EU over the next decade.
Supporters of amalgam fillings believe that the amount of mercury is too low to cause any true concern for a patient’s health and safety. Both the ADA and the FDA have determined that the use of these fillings is safe in children 6 years old and older.
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