Grooves have been found on 130,000-year-old Neanderthal teeth that appear to indicate the use of toothpicks, and impacted or rotated teeth got extra attention. The discovery adds to an abundance of recent evidence showing how advanced early humans were – far from the grunting half-apes we saw them as not long ago.
A cave in Krapina, Croatia, has made important contributions to our understanding of Neanderthals since bones and teeth were discovered there between 1899 and 1905. Recent reexamination of items extracted from the cave by Professor David Frayer of the University of Kansas and Dr Davorka Radovčić of the Croatian Natural History Museum has revealed much that was missed by previous generations of anthropologists.
Frayer and Radovčić studied four Neanderthal teeth under a microscope, picking up signs of grooves consistent with the use of toothpicks, along with what dentists call occlusal wear, the loss of material from teeth rubbing against each other.
In the Bulletin of the International Association for Paleodontology (yes seriously, that is a twice-yearly journal) the pair report that previous studies on the same teeth identified where in the mouth they came from. All four had toothpick grooves, but these were much deeper on an M3 molar and premolar. Those teeth also showed signs of abnormality, with the premolar rotated and the M3 partially impacted.
"The scratches indicate this individual was pushing something into his or her mouth to get at that twisted premolar," Frayer said in a statement. Sadly, Frayer doesn't know what Neanderthals used for toothpicks, although he suggests bits of bone or stems of strong grass as possibilities. "It's maybe not surprising that a Neanderthal did this, but as far as I know, there's no specimen that combines all of this together into a pattern that would indicate he or she was trying to presumably self-treat this eruption problem," he added.
Similar grooves have been found on teeth from other human species, dating back 1.8 million years, but the fact the grooves were so much deeper on the displaced teeth is the most powerful evidence yet that they represent a response to toothache, ie an early form of dentistry. The finding follows the discovery of a Spanish Neanderthal who ate aspirin and Penicillium mold when suffering a dental abscess.
Teeth may be tough, but they are also particularly vulnerable parts of an animal's body. Infections are not just painful, they can prove deadly, and not only to the one infected. This year evidence was produced that the reason some lions start eating humans, rather than other prey, is that tooth infections prevent them subduing zebras.