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Neanderthal teeth fossils shed light on prehistoric dentistry

The roots of dentistry run deep, as far back as 130,000 years ago, according to a new study.

Multiple toothpick grooves on teeth and signs of other manipulations by a Neanderthal are evidence of a kind of prehistoric dentistry, the University of Kansas study 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,” said David Frayer, Professor emeritus of Anthropology. “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.”

The researchers analyzed four isolated but associated mandibular teeth on the left side of the Neanderthal’s mouth.

The teeth were found at Krapina site in Croatia more than 100 years ago.

Frayer and Davorka Radovčić, curator at the Croatian Natural History Museum, have in recent years reexamined many items collected from the site, including teeth with a light microscope to document occlusal wear, toothpick groove formation, dentin scratches, and enamel fractures.

Even though the teeth were isolated, previous researchers were able to reconstruct their order and location in the male or female Neanderthal’s mouth.

Researchers have not recovered the mandible to look for evidence of periodontal disease, but the scratches and grooves on the teeth indicate they were likely causing irritation and discomfort for some time for this individual, Frayer said.

The features of the premolar and third molar are associated with several kinds of dental manipulations, he said. Mostly because the chips of the teeth were on the tongue side of the teeth and at different angles, the researchers ruled out that something happened to the teeth after the Neanderthal died.

Past research in the fossil record has identified toothpick grooves going back almost 2 million years, Frayer said. They did not identify what the Neanderthal would have used to produce the toothpick grooves, but it possibly could have been a bone or stem of 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,” he said.

The study is published in the journal Bulletin of the International Association for Paleodontology.

By: David Beasley, Staff Writer

Source: University of Kansas

Image Credit: David Frayer, University of Kansas

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