Do you know where your baby teeth are right now? If you’re from one of the many countries with the tradition of a tooth fairy or tooth mouse (he’s a dapper fellow named Raton Perez in Spanish-speaking regions), there’s a good chance that they are languishing at the bottom of one of your mom or dad’s drawers, having long ago been exchanged for a sweet treat or bit of money.
While the so-called milk teeth of modern humans may not serve many purposes after they fall out, one discarded in southeast France hundreds of thousands of years ago may soon yield fresh insights into the lifestyle of ancient human populations in Europe.
As described in a press release from researchers from the University of Perpignan and the European Centre for Prehistoric Research (CERP), a single fossilized tooth estimated to be about 560,000 years old was unearthed by volunteer excavators on Monday night at the famous Arago Cave – one of the earliest known sites of human inhabitation in Europe. (The record goes to the 1.85 million-year-old site in Dmanisi, Georgia).
"The tooth likely belonged to a child aged five or six, who still had their milk teeth but had used them a fair amount," stated palaeoanthropologist Tony Chevalier. His lab believes that the child belonged to the species Homo heidelbergensis, an extinct lineage of humans that lived throughout Africa and western Eurasia about 700,000 to 200,000 years ago.
Previous excavations in the large grotto during the 1960s and 70s yielded nearly 60,000 stone tools and processed animal bones dated between 600,000 and 400,000 years before present, and more than 100 hominid skeletal fragments that are approximately 450,000 years old.
Reconstruction using bones from two individuals has revealed that the cave-dwellers, dubbed ‘Tautavel Man’ after the nearby village, had a cranial volume 21 percent smaller than modern humans, a prominent brow ridge, a strong jaw but a weak chin, and stood at about 1.65 meters (5 feet 5 inches) tall. Tautavel Man is thought by some palaeoanthropologists to be a subspecies of Homo erectus, the first hominin to have left Africa – at least, according to our current understanding – and a close relative of us Homo sapiens. Others disagree, pointing out similarities to H. heidelbergensis.
In 2015, an adult tooth also dated to between 550,000 to 580,000 years old and attributed to H. heidelbergensis was discovered in Arago Cave, meaning that both recent dental specimens predate the site’s other human remains by more than 100,000 years.
Though the milk tooth may not be able to settle the debate about Tautavel’s Homo species, according to Chevalier, it could help researchers finally answer the question of whether the local humans used the caves like Arago as permanent homes or simply as convenient temporary shelters.
“[It will] teach us lots of things about man’s behavior” at the time, he concluded.