You probably know that when surgeons slice through the windpipe to open an airway that has otherwise been blocked, it's called a tracheotomy. Often it's followed by the insertion of a tube so the patient can breathe again.
Call us squeamish, but if there's one place we don't want to get sliced, it's the stump connecting our head to our body. It's the neck, for crap's sake -- the body part every knife-wielding hostage-taker goes for when he wants everyone to back the hell off. What we're saying is, if you're going to let somebody mess with that region, they'd better be kissing it softly or a surgeon with a large pile of sterile equipment on hand.
Not "something kind of pointy" that's located "next to my spit cup."
Not only did ancient civilizations understand, practice and perfect the art of the tracheotomy, it was actually one of the first surgical procedures invented. An Egyptian clay tablet portrayed a version of the tracheotomy in 3600 B.C. It wasn't even a medical description, it was just a picture, because 3600 B.C. was before the invention of writing. That's how long ago doctors figured out that you could cut the neck to reach the trachea to save a life.
Translation: "We'll give you five bucks if you choke both of our chickens."
India had a version of the procedure documented by 2000 B.C., and the surgery was so well known by Hippocrates' time that he condemned it, thanks to the likelihood that you could cut open an artery while performing it. Instead, he recommended a tracheal intubation, which is the one where you stick a tube in the neck of the poor sucker you're trying to save. In 160 A.D. a Greek doctor made intubation, or the tracheostomy, sound as much fun as a trip to the carnival:
"If you take a dead animal and blow air through its larynx (through a reed), you will fill its bronchi and watch its lungs attain the greatest dimension."
"And you can make a wicked bong out of their heads."
But even with thousands of years of practice, by 1800 the medical community had fewer than 50 lifesaving tracheotomies on record. Hey, we didn't say it was easy.
Usually when you picture oral health care from days of yore, something like this comes to mind:
"Ten florins says I can get a loogie into his mouth from here."
Enlisting friends to hold you down and/or beat you with sticks while a barber (yes, a barber, not a dentist -- see the scissors in the background) twists out the rotten tooth with sheer muscle power. If you were lucky, your friends had some alcohol on them and the kid holding a lit candle to your face didn't trip. If you were unlucky, well, your gaping gum hole probably got infected and you died. But the barber could trim up your beard before your family identified the body, so that was good.
Which was why sporting even half a mouth of teeth by age 30 wasn't just a major accomplishment, it would have been a miracle. After all, the smartest people in the world believed tooth decay was caused by a "tooth worm" squirming around and beating the shit out of your tooth nerves for the fun of it.
Luckily, we now know that they're caused by tooth demons.
The sophisticated techniques they have today like root canals (where they can use precision instruments to carefully extract the nerve from inside the tooth) would have seemed like goddamned magic to these savages.
Actually, despite thinking there were literal worms jacking up their tooth holes, someone in 200 B.C. figured out how to perform root canals. We know that because archaeologists found the remnants of the procedure in the jaw of a Jordanian soldier.
Via Clinical Endodontics: A Textbook
Along with these ancient X-rays.
Keep in mind, in order to perform this procedure, the dentist has to understand what the inside of the tooth looks like, whether it's worth hollowing out and preserving, or if it would just be better to pull the bastard out. So when an Israeli archaeologist noticed a green stain on a tooth of the skull of a soldier buried in a mass grave from 200 B.C., he probably thought he was just looking at some particularly stubborn plaque.
It was not.
He was looking at the stain from a copper wire one-tenth of an inch long, which had been inserted into the soldier's tooth, probably in order to deaden the pain of the three apparent abscesses and probable cyst later found by a dental anthropologist (which is totally not a made-up career, by the way). In all likelihood, when the ancient dentist pulled out the nerve from the tooth, he thought he was pulling out the "worm." Either way, in the process he performed a full on modern day root canal.
Just taking a wild guess here, but we're betting it looked nothing like this.
We can only hope the afflicted soldier appreciated him for it.
For more ways modern society is behind on the learning curve, check out 6 Amazingly High-Tech Ancient Weapons and 6 Modern Technologies Animals Invented Millions of Years Ago.