Neanderthals practised primitive dentistry 130,000 years ago, research shows

Neanderthals were practising primitive dentistry 130,000 years ago with some using toothpicks, scientists have discovered.

A study of four teeth from one of the extinct humans revealed toothpick grooves and scratches, which suggest attempts to get rid of toothache.

A set of four Neanderthal teeth showing evidence of toothpick grooves (David Frayer, University of Kansas)

Although the jawbone was missing, there was evidence that two of the teeth were not in their normal positions.

“The scratches indicate this individual was pushing something into his or her mouth to get at that twisted premolar,” said lead researcher Professor David Frayer, from the University of Kansas, US.

The findings, from fossils found at Krapina in Croatia, add to growing evidence of intelligent tool use by Neanderthals, a human sub-species that co-existed with the ancestors of people living today.

Experts believe one reason Neanderthals died out around 40,000 years ago was because they could not compete with early modern humans for food and shelter.

A model of a Neanderthal male (Will Oliver/PA)

The new research published in the Bulletin of the International Association for Paleodontology was conducted by scientists who carried out a microscopic examination of the teeth, all of which came from the left side of the mouth.

Six toothpick grooves and associated scratches and breaks in enamel were found among the two teeth that were out of position, and the two molars further behind them.

Prof Frayer 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.”

How the marks were made is unknown, but scientists suspect the Neanderthal might have used pieces of bone or grass stems.

“They show us that Neanderthals were doing something inside their mouths to treat the dental irritation,” Prof Frayer added.

“Or at least, this one was.”


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