Researcher from the University of Kansas has revealed intriguing evidence of prehistoric dentistry performed by a Neanderthal over 130,000 years ago. The study, published in the Bulletin of the International Association for Paleodontology, analyzed four associated mandibular teeth from the Neanderthal’s left side. The teeth, discovered at the Krapina site in Croatia, exhibited multiple toothpick grooves, scratches, and breaks, indicating attempts at self-treatment for dental problems.
The findings offer a fascinating connection to modern human experiences with dental pain and tooth-related issues. Among the co-authors were a Lawrence dentist, Janet Monge from the University of Pennsylvania, and Davorka Radovčić from the Croatian Natural History Museum. This research adds to the growing body of knowledge about Neanderthal life at the Krapina site, including their use of eagle talons as jewelry, as previously reported in a 2015 study published in PLOS ONE.
Over a century ago, the Krapina Neanderthal fossils, including the teeth, were unearthed during excavations carried out between 1899 and 1905. In recent years, researchers like Frayer and Radovčić have revisited the site to reexamine the collected items. In this study, they used a light microscope to investigate occlusal wear, toothpick groove formation, dentin scratches, and ante mortem lingual enamel fractures in the teeth.
Even though the teeth were found in isolation, previous researchers successfully reconstructed their original order and position within the mouth of the male or female Neanderthal. Although there is no evidence of periodontal disease due to the lack of a mandible, the presence of scratches and grooves on the teeth suggests that the individual likely experienced prolonged irritation and discomfort.
Notably, they observed that both the premolar and M3 molar had shifted from their normal positions. The examination revealed six toothpick grooves among these two teeth and the molars located further back in the mouth, providing compelling evidence of prehistoric dentistry attempts to alleviate dental issues.
According to Frayer, the scratches found on the teeth suggest that the Neanderthal was attempting to access the twisted premolar by pushing something into their mouth. The unique features of the premolar and third molar, with chips on the tongue side and at different angles, indicate that these dental manipulations occurred while the Neanderthal was alive, ruling out post-mortem damage.
Toothpick grooves have been observed in the fossil record dating back almost 2 million years, though the exact tool used by the Neanderthal for these grooves remains unidentified. It could have been a bone or a stem of grass, but the study doesn’t provide a definitive answer.
The discovery of dental manipulations adds to the intriguing findings at the Krapina site, where Neanderthals were also known to fashion eagle talons into jewelry. This challenges the notion of Neanderthals having “subhuman” abilities and highlights their ability to modify their environment using tools.
The evidence of toothpick grooves and dental care provides insight into the Neanderthal’s attempt to address dental discomfort, shedding light on their resourcefulness and adaptability.
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