Neanderthal Fossils Reveal Prehistoric Dentistry

Dentistry Today
Photo by David Frayer.


Photo by David Frayer.

Dentistry is not a modern invention. A team of researchers has discovered multiple toothpick grooves and other signs of manipulation on 4 isolated but associated teeth from the left side of the mouth of a Neanderthal that lived 130,000 years ago.

“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, PhD, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Kansas.

“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,” said Frayer.

The teeth were found at Krapina in Croatia along with other Neanderthal fossils more than 100 years ago. The researchers analyzed these teeth with a light microscope to document occlusal wear, toothpick groove formation, dentin scratches, and antemortem lingual enamel fractures.

Even though the teeth were isolated, previous researchers reconstructed their order and location in the Neanderthal’s mouth. The researchers have not recovered the mandible to look for evidence of periodontal disease, but the scratches and grooves indicated they were likely causing irritation and discomfort.

Also, the premolar and M3 molar were pushed out of their normal positions, while there were 6 toothpick grooves among those 2 teeth and the 2 molars farther behind them. The scratches indicate that the Neanderthal was pushing something into its mouth to reach the twisted premolar, Frayer said.

The features of the premolar and third molar are associated with several kinds of dental manipulations, Frayer said. The chips of the teeth were on the tongue side and at different angles, so the researchers ruled out the possibility of something happening to the teeth after the Neanderthal had died.

Previous research in the fossil record had identified toothpick grooves going back almost 2 million years, Frayer added. The researchers did not identify what the Neanderthal would have used to produce the toothpick grooves, but they believe it could have been a bone or a grass stem.

“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.

The researchers believe that the evidence from the toothpick marks and dental manipulations is also interesting in light of an earlier discovery of the Krapina Neanderthals’ ability to fashion eagle talons into jewelry because people often think of Neanderthals as having “subhuman” abilities.

“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,” said Frayer.

The study, “Prehistoric Dentistry? P4 Rotation, Partial M3 Impaction, Toothpick Grooves and Other Signs of Manipulation in Krapina Dental Person 20,” was published by The Bulletin of the International Association for Paleodontology.

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