Neanderthals used toothpicks and oral hygiene 46,000 years ago: study

Neanderthals from around 46,000 years ago used ‘toothpicks and oral hygiene’ an international team of scientists have found.

Analysing two teeth excavated from the Pleistocene layers of the Stajnia Cave, southern Poland, the team led by Dr. Wioletta Nowaczewska from the Department of Human Biology, University of Wrocław, found traces left by a toothpick.

It appears that the owner of the tooth used oral hygiene. Probably between the last two teeth there were food residues that had to be removed. We don't know what he made a toothpick from - a piece of a twig, a piece of bone or fish bone. It had to be a fairly stiff, cylindrical object, which the individual used often enough to leave a clear trace.” she said.

This is the second known example of such hygienic procedures being practiced by Neanderthals from Stajnia Cave. Scientists also believe that the teeth, a wisdom tooth (third lower molar) and an upper premolar, belonged to an individual over 30 years old, and the other to a slightly younger male in his twenties. However, they found no pathological changes indicative of enamel growth disorders, hypoplasia or caries. They note that the wisdom tooth shows signs of severe wear, which may be related to eating hard food.

To determine whether the tooth belonged to our immediate ancestor (Homo sapiens) or a fossil relative (Homo neanderthalensis), scientists assessed the structure of the tooth's crown, enamel thickness, dentine surface contour and crown surface microtrauma using 2D and 3D analysis. Enamel thickness is thinner for the Neanderthals than for Homo Sapiens. The analysis points to Neanderthals.

The teeth were initially discovered in 2010 during excavation works conducted under the supervision of Dr. Mikołaj Urbanowski. But it is only recently that they have been analysed using mitochondrial DNA. Dr. Mateja Hajdinjak from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology the tests along with additional analyses to confirm that the teeth belonged to Neanderthals. Neanderthal bone remains are rare finds in Central and Eastern Europe.

Officially confirmed discoveries are few and small in size: four teeth. Three of them were also discovered in Stajnia Cave, one in Ciemna Cave (also in the Kraków-Częstochowa Upland) and Dr. Nowaczewska believes that this is not the end of the discoveries.

The study was carried out by scientists from Poland, Italy, the UK and Germany. The results were presented in the Journal of Human Evolution. Virtual tooth models were prepared by Dr. Marcin Binkowski from the University of Silesia, with the technical support of Michał Walczak and Martyna Czaja, as well as Professor Stefano Benazzi and Antonino Vazzana from the University of Bologna.