About 130,000 years ago, a Neanderthal near Krapina in present-day Croatia was a having a rough time. Plagued by an impacted molar, she or he zealously scratched and poked the painful tooth—so much so the pick left grooves on the surrounding teeth. As Sarah Kaplan at The Washington Post reports, researchers have analyzed those the marks, suggesting it may have been a very primitive effort at dentistry.
According to a press release, the teeth were discovered during excavations at the Krapina site between 1899 and 1905. Over several decades, David Frayer, anthropologist at the University of Kansas, and his colleagues have been re-excavating the site and re-analyzing artifacts found in the cave. They recently took a closer look at four teeth that came from the same mandible and found indications of constant tooth picking: fractures in the enamel, as well as grooves and scratches in the teeth—all likely made while the Neanderthal was still alive.
But Frayer wanted a deeper assessment of the teeth. So he presented the specimens to his long-time dentist Joe Gatti. “I needed someone to give me a professional, clinical interpretation of what the situation was,” Frayer tells Kaplan.
Gatti recognized the signs of an impacted molar, and attributed the scratch marks to some sort of tooth-picking tool. They published their analysis in the The Bulletin of the International Society for Paleodontology.
Frayer is not certain exactly what the Neanderthal used as a toothpick, but speculates it could have been a stiff piece of grass or piece of bone. And while the ability to pick at its teeth does not revolutionize the way we look at Neanderthals, it does add to evidence that Neanderthals were a lot more like us than previously thought. In recent years, researchers have discovered that Neanderthals made cave art, crafted jewelry out of eagle talons, painted their bodies, created sophisticated tools, had larynxes capable of speech and hunted cooperatively.
“It fits into a pattern of a Neanderthal being able to modify its personal environment by using tools,” Frayer says in the press release. “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.”
Surprisingly, this is not the oldest example of a hominin using a toothpick, though it is the first thought to be used to treat dental pain. As Stefan Sirucek reported for National Geographic in 2013, Neanderthal remains from a cave near Valencia, Spain, also suggest that our evolutionary siblings used toothpicks to clean their teeth. Incredibly, toothpick marks have also been found on the teeth of 1.6 to 1.9 million year old Homo habilis specimens, an early species on the hominid tree.
But among our early human relatives, dental care likely didn’t progress very far. While Stone Age humans in Italy may have begun "drilling" cavities and packing them with tar about 13,000 years ago and the ancient Romans of Pompeii had extraordinarily nice teeth, most of humanity suffered (and many still do) from serious cavities and maladies of the teeth.