Neanderthals May Have Performed Their Own Dental Work 130,000 Years Ago

Image courtesy of Bulletin of the International Association for Paleodontology

Tooth pain — cavities, chipped teeth, impacted molars — is not some discovery of modern man. In fact, new research suggests that our neanderthal predecessors may have tried to figure out ways to fix their aching teeth long before the dawn of human history.

It’s no secret that the concept of dentistry has ancient roots, with the American Dental Association noting that the earliest known reference to a person identified as a dental practitioner is an inscription on the tomb of an Egyptian scribe who died somewhere around 2,600 BCE.

But a new study led by a University of Kansas researcher published today in the Bulletin of the International Association for Paleodontology suggests that the discovery of multiple toothpick grooves on teeth and other signs of manipulations by a Neanderthal nearly 130,000 years ago are evidence that humans were attempting a “kind of prehistoric dentistry.”

Researchers analyzed four separate but associated bottom teeth on the right side of a Neanderthal’s mouth, which were found at a site called Krapina in Croatia where other Neanderthal discoveries have been made. Though the teeth were discovered more than 100 years ago, researchers have been reexamining those finds in recent years.

They looked at the teeth with a light microscope and documented wear, toothpick groove formation, scratches, and other signs that may point to someone trying to deal with irritation or discomfort.

For example: Two of the teeth — a premolar and a molar — had been pushed out of their normal positions, with researchers finding six toothpick groves among those teeth and the two molars behind them.

“The scratches indicate this individual was pushing something into his or her mouth to get at that twisted premolar,” said one of the study’s co-authors, David Frayer, professor emeritus of anthropology at the university.

It’s unclear what this individual was using to pick his teeth, but researchers believe it could have been a bone or a piece of grass.

Because of the fact that the chips were mostly on the tongue-side of the teeth and at different angles, researchers ruled out the possibility that something happened to the teeth after the Neanderthal died.

Frayer notes that previous research in the fossil record has identified toothpick grooves going back almost two million years, so perhaps it’s not surprising that a Neanderthal was picking at his or her teeth. However, he isn’t aware of any other specimen that would indicate that someone was trying to self-treat a pesky problem.

The toothpick grooves, scratches, and other signs left on the teeth have led researchers to believe this Neanderthal’s efforts were palliative measures meant to “treat” dental problems.

“It was an interesting connection or collection of phenomena that fit together in a way that we would expect a modern human to do,” Frayer says. “Everybody has had dental pain, and they know what it’s like to have a problem with an impacted tooth.”

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