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Among bones and reconstructions

Dentist Rodrigo de Oliveira juggles appointments at his São Paulo practice with excavations in Minas Gerais

LÉO RAMOSDuring an end-of-year trip in 2005, dentist Rodrigo Elias de Oliveira decided to familiarize himself with the Peruaçu Caverns National Park in Minas Gerais State. In order to gain entry, he invented a story that the visit was part of his doctoral project on diseases of the mouth observed in archeological materials. At that time, however, Oliveira was working on his master’s in the School of Dentistry at the University of São Paulo (FO-USP), and had no connection with archeology. “They asked if I knew Walter Neves,” he says. “I didn’t know who they were talking about, so I came up with whatever would get me in.”

When he returned to his hotel that evening, he decided to search for the unknown stranger on the internet. He discovered that the bioarcheologist was head of the Laboratory for Human Evolutionary and Ecological Studies at USP’s Biosciences Institute, and he scheduled a visit for his return to São Paulo. The ensuing conversation with Neves resulted in a two-year internship in his laboratory, during which Oliveira cleaned, assembled and analyzed fragments of excavated skeletons. “I actually converted my old lie into a truth,” he comments.

Soon after completing his master’s degree in 2008, Oliveira was invited by Neves to do his doctoral program at the laboratory. He accepted the invitation, implementing a proposal to analyze oral diseases observed in archeological materials as a way to draw conclusions about the diet and quality of life of the inhabitants of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. During his archeological work, however, Oliveira continued to see patients at his dental practice and perfect his dentistry skills. Under Neves’ guidance, Oliveira completed his doctorate in 2013. That same year, he started work on a second specialty, this time in periodontics—treatment of problems involving tooth areas near the gums. In 2015 he began postdoctoral studies at FO-USP, in which he combined the fields of periodontics, nutrition and bioanthropology. The knowledge he gained contributed to his studies on teeth in human skeletal remains found in the Lagoa Santa region in the state of Minas Gerais (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 247).

In addition to dentistry and archeology, Oliveira has always been involved in social issues. From 2002 to 2008, before and during his master’s studies, he helped develop prostheses for individuals affected by cancer of the head and neck who were being treated in the public health system. More recently, Oliveira took part in a research project focused on the oral health of river dwellers in the Mamirauá Reserve Park in the state of Amazonas. “We provided care and collected data on saliva and dental bacterial plaque from residents of the region,” he explains. The data are being used in his postdoctoral research and archeological work in Lagoa Santa.