Maya Inlaid human teeth incrusted with jade and pyrite. (via Wikimedia Commons)

At the risk of legitimizing Gwyneth Paltrow, an intriguing recent discovery suggests that there is a healing aspect in the ancient practice of sticking gemstones into body parts. Maya people in the Classic period (200–900 CE) ritualistically augmented their teeth by affixing jade, turquoise, and pyrite in small holes drilled by ancient dentists. New findings now indicate that the sealant used to hold the stones in place may have had properties that helped prevent infection and tooth decay, according to an article in Science Magazine published in May.

A disinfectant sealant seems like a good policy in the practice of intentionally drilling, filing, polishing, and notching teeth, all of which were ways that ancient Maya honored their belief in “I’q” ( Breath, Air, or Spirit) as divine. It also has proven to stand the test of time, as more than half of teeth bearing such modifications still have their stone inlays intact when discovered during archeological digs, but until recently, its exact composition was unknown. But a study helmed by Gloria I. Hernández-Bolio of the Center for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, has identified some 150 organic compounds, many found in plant resins, included in the sealant.

“Each ingredient has a specific task,” Hernández-Bolio told Science Magazine. “Most important for them was the binding properties.” The biochemist and her colleagues analyzed eight sealant samples from teeth found in burial sites across the ancient Maya Empire.

Jade-toothed skull at the Jade Museum in Antigua, Guatemala (photo David Dennis via Flickr)

Some samples had common elements. For example, many contained traces of pine saps, which can fight dental bacteria. But many others contained regionally specific plants that served similar functions: Two teeth contained evidence of sclareolide, a compound found in Salvia plants that has antibacterial and antifungal properties, but sealant samples from the remote outer Copán region included essential oils from mint plants whose components have potential anti-inflammatory effects. Regardless of the potential ritualistic significance of certain plants, they all seem to have been aimed at safely binding gemstones in place in the mouth.

As Cristina Verdugo, an anthropologist from the University of California, Santa Cruz, told Science Magazine, not only were the Maya dentists good at their work, but they also knew “how to avoid potential unwanted side effects” like infection or other dental issues. Look no further than the example of Janaab’ Pakal (also known as Pacal), the Maya king of Palenque, who died in 683 CE at the age of 80 with nearly all of his teeth in place with no signs of decay.

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...

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