Thursday, November 07, 2013


Were Neanderthals merely lumbering oafs? Not at least as far as dental hygiene is concerned, archaeologists suggest. Toothpicks likely were on the menu after a hearty Neanderthal meal. Our long-lost Homo neanderthalensis cousins used the toothpicks to clean their teeth and even relieve the pain of gum disease, suggests a team at Spain's Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social (IPHES).

The study, published in the October 16 issue of PLOS One, provides the oldest evidence of toothpick use for the purpose of pain relief. Found at the Cova Foradà site in Valencia, Spain, the fossil teeth were embedded in the upper jaw of an ancient skull, which researchers estimate at 50,000 to 150,000 years old.

The teeth were free of cavities but showed heavy dental wear. This was likely due to a highly abrasive diet that probably included "stems, fruits,leaves, etc., and a great amount of meat and also marrow," said study lead author Marina Lozano of IPHES, by email.
"Also, all these foods would have dust and/or ashes that increased the
abrasiveness of the diet" significantly, she added.

The toothpicks were most likely thin sticks or rigid stalks of grass.

Such research has shown evidence of toothpick marks as far back as Homo habilis, an early human species that lived 1.6 to 1.9 million years ago. For Neanderthals it was presumably no different.

What's different here is that the new study suggests that Neanderthals were doing more than just de-gunking their molars. The fossils displayed evidence of periodontal disease, along with telltale toothpick marks. That led the researchers to hypothesize that Neanderthals employed toothpicks not just to clean teeth and dislodge food particles, but also to help relieve pain and inflammation caused by gum disease.

According to the study, "The use of toothpicks of plant origin to mitigate sore gums could also be considered as a type of rudimentary dental treatment." If the toothpick finding bears out, it would be the oldest evidence of palliative dental care of its kind. And it would suggest that the Neanderthal was no technological slouch.


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