The History of Dental Implants – Part One
By Stuart Diamond
In this series of articles, we will explore mankind’s earliest attempts to replace missing, broken and diseased teeth. We will follow developments in dental implantation all the way to the present. We will examine breakthrough advances that will be available in the next few years. And finally, we will gaze into a deeper future and explore revolutionary possibilities in dental and oral health.
Technology is not only future frontiers. It is the story of the past. From the moment Homo sapiens emerged from its primordial origins, early men and women were pursued inventive techniques and tools (technology) to better face their daily challenges. From the hunt to defense to agriculture, ingenious technology was the key to survival and in large part what separated humankind from the rest of the animal kingdom. Better remedies and treatments for overall health was part of the foundational technologies that allowed men and women to flourish and dominate the world as we know it.
Today, good dental health is only part of a complex biological human paradigm of good health. However, in earlier days dental health may have played an outsized role in what was considered well-being. After all, good sets of teeth were probably as important for early men and women as it is for us. The ability to eat, enjoy food, and to make a good appearance was as equally important 4000 years ago, as it is today.
Our topic is specific – the history of dental implants. Interestingly, the technology of modern dental implants is only a little more than fifty years old. However, finding ways to save or replace missing teeth goes back thousands of years.
We have evidence that dentistry has been practiced for at least 9,000 years – well before there was any form of historical documentation. Excavations of burial sites in the Indus Valley, circa 7000 BC, reveal that skilled craftsmen devised innovative methods for reconstructive and cosmetic dental practices.
The ancient Egyptian world of the Pharaohs – with its mummified remains and hieroglyphic texts – provide documentation of the earliest techniques to save and replace teeth. The Edwin Smith Papyrus, written in the 17th century BC, but which may reflect previous manuscripts from as early as 3000 BC, describes treatments of many health issues, including cancer. Part of the document also focuses on how to treat a range of dental issues.
Archeologists have found evidence of dental work, including implants, as far back as 2500 BC. Egyptian physicians used various techniques to stabilize and replace teeth. Early physicians used seashells, animal bone, and carved ivory from elephants to replace teeth – simply hammering the implants into the patients’ gums. In addition, we see evidence of teeth from other people, perhaps cadavers, being used to create an early form of dentures.
We can also trace how technological advances overall impacted dental implantation. For example, there are remains of a man who lived circa 1000 BC, where copper wire is used to stabilize and hold implants in place.
Archeologists first find the use of gold in Egyptian dental work approximately in 500 BC. Gold, of course, has remarkable qualities. It is flexible, easy to work with. As gold is rare, doesn’t tarnish, and retains its light reflective luster it is highly valued. These attributes are the underlying reason why the metal became the default currency in many cultures throughout history. Golden teeth may have been as highly sought after as a sign of status and well-being, as are pearly white teeth do in our time.
Ancient China was one of the earliest civilizations with archeological evidence showing written language more than seven thousand years old. From its inception, Chinese culture developed sophisticated approaches to healing. For example, some of these early texts discuss the use of stones on pressure points as a means of treating illnesses – an early form of acupuncture.
Approximately 5,000 years ago, under the reign of the Yellow Emperor, a doctor named Qi Bo, and his trusted advisors held far-reaching discussions and research into medicine and acupuncture. Over time, these oral traditions of medicine were codified into the earliest surviving text written by medical specialists, The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, which brought together the medical experience from earliest known times’
Archeologists have uncovered remains that show as far back as 2000 BC, Chinese physicians were using small carved pegs made from bamboo to replace teeth.
Etruscan culture flowered on the northern side of the Mediterranean – in the central area of what today is modern Italy. As early as 500 B.C., Etruscan physicians used gold bands to stabilize teeth.
The Phoenicians history of dentistry also showed that they experimented in bridgework. Several examples of fixed bridgework have been found in skulls unearthed during archeological digs. The method used consists of ivory-carved false teeth attached to natural teeth by thin gold wire.
Mayan culture thrived in Central America developing sophisticated medical and dental practices, including some of the finest examples of cosmetic dentistry, where implanted precious jewels and stone adorned a subject’s teeth. With sophisticated drilling techniques, Mayans and other Central American cultures used seashells to replace missing teeth.
We have come a long way since the earliest days when a proto-dentist would pound animal bones into a patient’s jaw. Since then, dental implants have steadily gained ground as the preferred method of tooth replacement. Millions of patients have benefited from modern dental implant techniques since its inception in 1965.
Our next article will look at implant dentistry from the Middle Ages through the 19th century.
For more information about the latest dental implant technologies, contact Dr. Richard Nejat at
Advanced Periodontics and Implant Dentistry
Address: 110 E 40th St #500, New York, NY 10016
Phone: (212) 581-1090