According to a new study led by a researcher at the University of Kansas, multiple signs of manipulations and work on teeth by a Neanderthal 130,000 years ago provide evidence of a form of prehistoric dentistry; the main source of evidence being multiple toothpick grooves on some of the teeth.
David Frayer, professor emeritus of Anthropology said the following "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." Furthermore, he states that "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."
In Volume 11 No. 1 of their twice-yearly journal, the Bulletin of the International Association for Paleodontology recently published the study. Frayer's co-authors are Joseph Gatti (a Lawrence dentist), Janet Monge of the University of Pennsylvania and Davorka Radovčić, curator at the Croatian Natural History Museum. The researchers examined four separate, yet associated, mandibular teeth located on the left side of the Neanderthal’s mouth.
The teeth were discovered in a location where Frayer and Radovčić had previously made several discoveries about Neanderthal life, the Krapina site in Croatia. Among these discoveries was the widely recognised 2015 study in ‘Plos One’ regarding a set of eagle talons with cut marks that were patterned into a piece of jewellery.
The Krapina site was first excavated between 1899-1905; which is when all the Neanderthal fossils, including the teeth in question, were discovered. However, Radovčić and Frayer have re-examined many items gathered from this site in recent years.
In this study, they examined the teeth using a light microscope to record dentin scratches, toothpick groove development, occlusal deterioration and ante mortem, lingual enamel fractures.
Despite the teeth being isolated, past researchers could recreate their sequence as well as their positioning in the Neanderthal’s mouth. Frayer indicated that researchers have been unable to retrieve the mandible which would be used to look for signs of periodontal disease, however the scratches and grooves found on the teeth are a likely indicator that they were a cause of irritation and discomfort for the individual.
It was discovered that the M3 molar and premolar were both pushed out of normal position. Additionally, they discovered six toothpick grooves on those two teeth as well as the two molars behind them.
Frayer theorised “The scratches indicate this individual was pushing something into his or her mouth to get at that twisted premolar”.
He stated that some characteristics of the premolar and third molar can be associated with several types of dental manipulation. Primarily because the chips in the teeth were located on the tongue side of the teeth and at different angles, the researchers ruled out the possibility of the damage to the teeth occurring posthumously.
Toothpick grooves have been uncovered in previous research into the fossil record going back around 1.8 million years. The researchers were unable to identify the tool or object used to create the toothpick marks, but it is a possibility that they were done using a bone or a stem of strong grass.
"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 evidence from the toothpick marks as well as the dental manipulations has added even more interest into the Krapina Neanderthals as it was previously discovered that they possessed the ability to fashion jewellery out of eagle talons. These discoveries now challenge the previously and widely accepted concept of Neanderthals having “subhuman” abilities.
"It fits into a pattern of a Neanderthal being able to modify its personal environment by using tools," he said, "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."