Dental Discovery: Neanderthals Treated Toothaches

The history of dentistry just got a bit richer. According to a recent article from Science Daily, researchers at the University of Kansas have discovered multiple toothpick grooves and signs of other manipulations on teeth dating back 130,000 years.

“As a package, this fits together as a dental problem that the Neanderthal was having and was trying to presumably treat itself, with the toothpick grooves, the breaks and also with the scratches on the premolar,” said David Frayer, professor emeritus of Anthropology. “It was an interesting connection or collection of phenomena that fit together in a way that we would expect a modern human to do. Everybody has had dental pain, and they know what it’s like to have a problem with an impacted tooth.”

The study, which was published in the Bulletin of the International Association for Paleodontology, involved the analysis of four isolated mandibular teeth on the left side of a Neanderthal’s mouth. Co-authors include Joseph Gatti, a Lawrence dentist, Janet Monge, of the University of Pennsylvania and Davorka Radovčić, curator at the Croatian Natural History Museum. Frayer and Radovčić have been involved with several discoveries about Neanderthal life at Krapina site in Croatia, were the teeth were found. The site was originally excavated between 1899 and 1905 when the teeth and other fossils were found, but Frayer and Radovčić have recently reexamined many items collected there.

Researchers have not recovered the mandible to look for evidence of periodontal disease, but the grooves and scratches on the teeth indicate they were probably causing discomfort and irritation for this individual. They also found the M3 molar and premolar pushed out of their normal positions, indicating several kinds of dental manipulations.

“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,” Frayer said. “It fits into a pattern of a Neanderthal being able to modify its personal environment by using tools,” he added, “because the toothpick grooves, whether they are made by bones or grass stems or who knows what, the scratches and chips in the teeth, they show us that Neanderthals were doing something inside their mouths to treat the dental irritation. Or at least this one was.”

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