Christy Turner of Arizona State University is one of the most prominent and respected physical anthropologists of the prehistoric southwest, and at the same time a controversial figure on account of his divisive theories about cannibalism in the southwest and its relationship to the Chaco system. I will have more to say about that in subsequent posts. Here, however, I’m just going to note a recent article of his on a less contentious (but still quite interesting) subject: dentistry.
The article begins with a story about how another physical anthropologist had asked him in 1995 if he knew of any cases of drilled teeth in the prehistoric southwest. That anthropologist, Tim White of Berkeley, had found a drilled tooth at a Fremont Culture site in northern Colorado and was trying to figure out what to make of it. Turner replied that he didn’t know of any other examples, and White went on to conclude that the tooth had apparently been drilled for therapeutic reasons, presumably to relieve pain, although the exact source of the pain involved was not clear from the surviving remains.
Years later, however, Turner was looking through his files and realized that he had in fact seen another example of a drilled tooth. It was found in the jaw of a young woman buried at a site in Sycamore Canyon, Arizona, quite close to Montezuma Castle National Monument, in 1965. Turner examined the tooth in 1986 while doing research for a project, but had forgotten all about it by the time he talked to White about the subject. When he rediscovered it he decided to put together an article discussing it to supplement White’s study of the Fremont tooth.
The basic gist of the article is that the hole drilled in the tooth was right in the same place as an area of severe decay that would presumably be quite painful, making it quite clear that the intent of the drilling was to relieve the pain. This was the same conclusion that White reached about his tooth, but with the added advantage that in this case the decayed area was quite obvious, whereas on White’s tooth there was no clear sign of similar damage. Also notable on Turner’s tooth was the fact that the angle of drilling was what would have been the easiest angle to drill from if the woman was opening her mouth wide, implying that the drilling was done during her lifetime rather than after death. Also suggesting this was evidence of wear around the drilled area from after the drilling, implying that the procedure was at least somewhat successful and the woman was able to go on using the tooth, perhaps with less pain than before. Turner’s resulting conclusions, while basically similar to White’s, were thus considerably better supported and lent additional credence to White’s interpretations.
What is particularly interesting, however, is that these two teeth are the only known examples of this sort of therapeutic dentistry from anywhere in the prehistoric southwest. Indeed, Turner states in the article that he is unaware of any other reports of tooth-drilling, ancient or historic, among the natives of the southwest. This suggests that it is unlikely that this type of procedure, despite its evident success, ever became a widespread practice in the southwest. Moreover, since the two known instances come from different cultures rather far apart in both space and time, with White’s from the Fremont of eleventh-century northern Colorado and Turner’s from the Sinagua of fourteenth-century northern Arizona, it seems unlikely that there is any connection between the two. Instead, these are apparently unrelated examples of independent innovation that failed to catch on.
One broader lesson that could be taken from this is that societies don’t continually progress in any particular direction. There are a lot of odd little things happening all the time in any society, some of which are traditional and some of which are innovative, and while the innovations do sometimes work as well as or better than the traditions, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be widely adopted. Sometimes a drilled tooth is just a drilled tooth.