Human teeth used as beads found in Turkey

Two 8,500-year-old teeth used as beads have been discovered at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in central Turkey. Three teeth with holes that appeared to have been deliberated drilled in them were unearthed between 2013 and 2015. A study, now published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, confirmed that two of three had been drilled through for use as beads.

“Not only had the two teeth been drilled with a conically shaped microdrill similar to those used for creating the vast amounts of beads from animal bone and stone that we have found at the site, but they also showed signs of wear corresponding to extensive use as ornaments in a necklace or bracelet,” University of Copenhagen archaeologist and first author of the article Scott Haddow said. He added:

“The evidence suggests that the two teeth pendants were probably extracted from two mature individuals post-mortem. The wear on the teeth’s chewing surfaces indicates that the individuals would have been between 30-50 years old. And since neither tooth seems to have been diseased — which would likely have caused the tooth to fall out during life — the most likely scenario is that both teeth were taken from skulls at the site.”

Human teeth drilled for use as ornaments have been found before at prehistoric sites in Europe, but these are the first examples from the Near East.

“Given the amount of fragmentary skeletal material often circulating within Neolithic sites, not least at Çatalhöyük where secondary burial practices associated with the display of human skulls were frequent, what is most interesting is the fact that human teeth and bone were not selected and modified more often. Thus, because of the rarity of the find, we find it very unlikely that these modified human teeth were used solely for aesthetic purposes but rather carried profound symbolic meaning for the people who wore them,” Scott Haddow explained.

The symbolism might have been connected to the deceased from whom the teeth were extracted — a memento mori, for example, or an attempt to capture some element of their characters and spirits. The rare ornamental human teeth were not found in graves which is particularly notable because many beads made from the bones and teeth of animals have been discovered in a funerary context at Çatalhöyük. That suggests the human teeth may have been specifically excluded from burial practices.

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