A MAN FOUND under 12 feet of volcanic ash in Michoacán, Mexico, appears to be the earliest dental patient in the Americas.
Scientists estimate that approximately 4,500 years ago, he suffered through multiple painful procedures to have his upper front teeth filed down to make way for a denture, most likely the palate of a jaguar or wolf. T
he interdisciplinary and international team of researchers — led by University of Connecticut Professor Tricia Gabany-Guerrero — has uncovered clues as to whom this man was and why he would have undergone such extensive dental modification.
The man’s remote burial site in the volcanic highlands of west-central Mexico might have gone undiscovered if not for the interest of the local Purépecha residents from the Comunidad Indígena de Nuevo Parangaricutiro. They discovered a series of vivid cliff paintings in the shadow of the Paricutin volcano and encouraged the scientific community to come and study them.
The dental patient was accidentally uncovered while Gabany-Guerrero and her colleagues were excavating the site in search of the tools and paint used to produce the paintings. Much to their surprise they found the remains of a man wedged between two very large boulders.
“He really astounded us and his skull was oriented toward these paintings,” Gabany-Guerrero says.
Data taken from the skull, hand, leg and foot bones suggest that the man was between 28-32 years old, was in good health and stood 155 centimeters tall. Even though he lived in a harsh environment at an altitude of 8,860 feet, his bones show that he lived a leisurely life void of too much physical labor.
Researchers say that the dental modification, apparent lack of strenuous activity, and the location of the burial in front of a cliff wall indicate that the man held special status in his community.
According to Guerrero, dental modification was found in the Americas in the Late Post Classic period (1200-1441 AD), when people would insert turquoise or precious stones in front of their teeth to indicate status, but to find evidence of dental modification more than 1,000 years earlier is unusual. She suggests that the man held a ceremonial role in the community.
“You can imagine someone with filed down teeth and jaguar fangs sticking out,” Gabany-Guerrero says. “Certainly this would play up the ritual nature of who this person would have been in the society.”
The cliff paintings the man was buried under also provide clues to his identity. Very clear images show scenes of hunting, dancing and shaman in ritual poses.
“This is the first time that anything like this has been found in the Michoacan region,” says Gabany-Guerrero. “The iconography is giving us a window into a long period of time when this shelter was used for ritual purposes.”
She explains that archaeological remains of pre-ceramic societies are rare in this region and that this site might inspire more researchers to pay attention to a long-ignored area.
Currently the Comunidad Indígena de Nuevo Parangaricutiro is working with an NGO, The Mexican Environmental & Cultural Research Institute (MEXECRI), and Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) to manage the site and guide tourists interested in viewing the artwork.
Published in Americas magazine, January-February 2007, by Chris Hardman