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Revealed: 130,000-year-old teeth with toothpick grooves suggest Neanderthals practiced prehistoric dentistry

Uploaded August 15, 2017

“While you might think of dentistry as a modern profession, a study of 130,000-year-old teeth suggests that Neanderthals could have been doing a prehistoric version of the job long ago.

Researchers discovered multiple toothpick grooves, possibly created when trying to treat toothache, on four teeth from a Neanderthal’s mouth.

The findings undermine previous studies that have painted Neanderthals as having ‘subhuman’ abilities, and instead suggest they were intelligent beings.

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Researchers discovered multiple toothpick grooves and signs of other manipulations on four teeth from a Neanderthal's mouth

Researchers discovered multiple toothpick grooves and signs of other manipulations on four teeth from a Neanderthal’s mouth

WHAT DID THEY FIND?

The researchers analysed four mandibular teeth from the left side of a Neanderthal’s mouth.

Using a microscope, the researchers noted several damages on the teeth, including occlusal wear, toothpick groove formation, dentin scratches, and ante mortem, lingual enamel fractures.

The mandible (lower jaw) has not been found, so it is unclear whether the Neanderthal suffered from any tooth disease.

But the scratches and grooves on the teeth suggest that they were likely causing irritation and discomfort for some time, according to the researchers.

Two of the teeth – the premolar and M3 molar – had been pushed out of their normal positions, and had several toothpick grooves.

The other two teeth – a premolar and third molar – had several kinds of dental manipulations.

Chips on the teeth were on the tongue side and at different angles, suggesting that the damage was done when the Neanderthal was still alive, the researchers said.

 Researchers from the University of Kansas analysed the Neanderthal teeth.

Professor David Frayer, who led the study, said: ‘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.

‘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 researchers analysed four mandibular teeth from the left side of a Neanderthal’s mouth.

The teeth were found at the Krapina site in Croatia over 100 years ago, but in recent years, researchers have re-examined many items collected from the site.

Using a microscope, the researchers noted several damages on the teeth, including occlusal wear, toothpick groove formation and dentin scratches.

The mandible (lower jaw) has not been found, so it is unclear whether the Neanderthal suffered from any tooth disease.

But the scratches and grooves on the teeth suggest that they were likely causing irritation and discomfort for some time, according to the researchers

Two of the teeth had been pushed out of their normal positions, and had several toothpick grooves.

Professor Frayer said: ‘The scratches indicate this individual was pushing something into his or her mouth to get at that twisted premolar.’

Using a microscope, the researchers noted several damages on the teeth, including occlusal wear, toothpick groove formation, dentin scratches, and ante mortem, lingual enamel fractures

Using a microscope, the researchers noted several damages on the teeth, including occlusal wear, toothpick groove formation, dentin scratches, and ante mortem, lingual enamel fractures

Two of the teeth – the premolar and M3 molar – had been pushed out of their normal positions, and had several toothpick grooves. The other two teeth – a premolar and third molar – had several kinds of dental manipulations

Two of the teeth – the premolar and M3 molar – had been pushed out of their normal positions, and had several toothpick grooves. The other two teeth – a premolar and third molar – had several kinds of dental manipulations

The other two teeth – a premolar and third molar – had several kinds of dental manipulations.

Chips on the teeth were on the tongue side and at different angles, suggesting that the damage was done when the Neanderthal was still alive, the researchers said.

While the researchers are unsure what the Neanderthal used as a toothpick, they believe it could have been a bone or stem of grass.

While the researchers are unsure what the Neanderthal used as a toothpick, they believe it could have been a bone or stem of grass. Pictured are toothpick marks on one of the teeth

While the researchers are unsure what the Neanderthal used as a toothpick, they believe it could have been a bone or stem of grass. Pictured are toothpick marks on one of the teeth

While previous studies have suggested that Neanderthals had 'subhuman' abilities, the researchers believe their findings suggest otherwised

While previous studies have suggested that Neanderthals had ‘subhuman’ abilities, the researchers believe their findings suggest otherwised

Professor Frayer told MailOnline: ‘No one has ever found an actual toothpick at a Neanderthal site, even though many Neanderthals used them.

‘Experimental work has shown that grass stems could have produced them — or bone or wood.

‘I have looked for small pointed, nonhuman bones in the Krapina collection, but never found anything.’

Chips on the teeth were on the tongue side and at different angles, suggesting that the damage was done when the Neanderthal was still alive, the researchers said

Chips on the teeth were on the tongue side and at different angles, suggesting that the damage was done when the Neanderthal was still alive, the researchers said

The teeth were found at the Krapina site in Croatia over 100 years ago, but in recent years, researchers have re-examined many items collected from the site

The teeth were found at the Krapina site in Croatia over 100 years ago, but in recent years, researchers have re-examined many items collected from the site

Professor Frayer said: ‘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.’

While previous studies have suggested that Neanderthals had ‘subhuman’ abilities, the researchers believe their findings suggest otherwised.

Professor Frayer told MailOnline: ‘Neanderthals are not the bumbling fools most people think of when their name is mentioned.

 ‘This study just adds another piece of evidence to their complex behaviour.

Professor Frayer added: ‘It fits into a pattern of a Neanderthal being able to modify its personal environment by using tools, 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.’

NEANDERTHALS WERE SKILLED TOOL MAKERS

Neanderthals first emerged around 280,000 years ago, spreading to inhabit much of Europe and parts of Asia, but they eventually died out 40,000 years ago.

The reason for their demise was often put down to being a more primative species of human that was unable to compete against the more sophisticated Homo sapiens.

They were depicted as thuggish cavemen that scraped an existence on the cold lands of ice age Europe.

However, a series of discoveries are now putting Neanderthals into a new light. Stone tools discovered at sites they inhabited suggest they were skilled tool makers with adept hand eye coordination.

A 60,000-year-old multi-purpose bone tool unearthed in France also suggests Neanderthals understood how to use bones to make useful devices

A recent discovery by researchers at the Muséum National d’Histories Naturelle in Paris suggests that Neanderthals may have built homes using the materials they found around them.

They discovered a 26 feet wide building created 44,000 years ago from mammoth bones.

Many of the bones had also been decorated with carvings and ochre pigments.

Cross-hatched engravings found inside Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar are also thought to be the first known examples of Neanderthal rock art.

DNA analysis has also shown that Neanderthals carried the same genes that are thought to have enabled modern humans to speak.”

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