Neanderthals, our evolutionary cousins, used toothpicks nearly 46,000 years ago, a new study of their teeth has revealed.
A research team, headed by University of Wrocław’s Dr. Wioletta Nowaczewska, examined two hominin teeth dating back 46,000 years (Pleistocene epoch).
The teeth — an upper premolar and a lower molar — were discovered in 2010 during the field research in Stajnia Cave in Poland.
They were found in two layers containing flint artifacts of the Micoquian tradition.
“These teeth, together with the three permanent molars attributed to Neanderthal, increase the sample of fossil human specimens from this site to five,” Dr. Nowaczewska and her colleagues noted.
The researchers analyzed the morphology of the teeth and mitochondrial DNA extracted from them.
“In the case of the lower molar, one can see a complicated structure: a large number of tubercles,” Dr. Nowaczewska said.
“In the front part of the crown there was also a characteristic depression and enamel formation.
“The good condition of the premolar allowed us to carry out 2D and 3D analysis of enamel thickness, digital reconstruction, virtual ‘pulling’ of the enamel cap and assessment of enamel thickness, which in Neanderthals is thinner than in Homo sapiens.”
“All these features taken together point to Neanderthals,” she said.
A Neanderthal tooth found in Stajnia Cave, Poland. Image credit: Nowaczewska et al., doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2020.102929.
The scientists believe that the two teeth from Stajnia Cave belonged to a Neanderthal individual over 30 years old.
“We found no pathological changes indicative of enamel growth disorders, hypoplasia or caries,” they said.
“The lower molar tooth shows signs of severe wear, which may be related to eating hard food.”
“It appears that the owner of the tooth used oral hygiene,” they added.
“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 fairly stiff, cylindrical object, which the individual used often enough to leave a clear trace.”
A paper on the findings was published in the Journal of Human Evolution.
Wioletta Nowaczewska et al. 2021. New hominin teeth from Stajnia Cave, Poland. Journal of Human Evolution 151: 102929; doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2020.102929