Toothache? Blame it on the tooth worm
The ancients struggled to find a reason why their teeth would sometimes hurt. After all, they had no knowledge of the importance of brushing and the dangers of sugars. So, tooth decay was often attributed to a ‘tooth worm’. That is, several ancient civilizations believed that tiny, microscopic worms were responsible for causing holes in teeth. According to such theories, the worms would keep burrowing through different teeth, just as worms tunnel through wood, making small holes and causing large amounts of pain.
Belief in tooth worms was widespread, historians have found. Ivory sculptures carved by the Sumerians in around 5,000BC show miniature, evil-looking worms inside teeth cavities. They also depict men in evident pain. And it wasn’t just the Sumerians who blamed their aches on worms. There’s also plenty of evidence showing that the ancient Chinese, Indian and Japanese cultures believed in tooth worms. Similarly, several ancient Greek philosophers, including Homer, also wrote about the distress caused by tiny creatures burrowing inside people’s teeth.
What’s perhaps even more surprising is that such an idea endured as long as it did. Famously, the renowned French surgeon Guy de Chaliac was still promoting the idea that tooth worms cause tooth decay well into the 14th century. This was despite the fact that, as a surgeon, he was in a position to cut open countless bodies and see what was inside, teeth included.