Neanderthals Used Toothpicks
October 17, 2013

Neanderthals Used Toothpicks To Alleviate Gum Disease

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

Scientists have discovered how the use of toothpicks to remove food scraps from between the teeth dates back all the way to as early as Homo habilis. Now, researchers examining the Cova Foradà Neanderthal fossil found this hominid also used toothpicks to ease the pain associated with oral diseases like inflammation of the gums. This discovery, reported in the journal PLOS ONE, is the oldest documented case of palliative treatment of dental disease using a toothpick.

Homo habilis is a species that lived between 1.9 and 1.6 million years ago. Scientists believe the individual used in the study was utilizing a toothpick to help alleviate the discomfort caused by periodontal disease.

"This disease usually causes bloody and inflamed gums, so the systematic use of toothpicks could mitigate sore gums," said Marina Lozano, co-author of the study and a professor at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. "However, in the case of Cova Foradà the toothpick was not only used as a primitive method of dental hygiene, but it is associated with a dental disease and with the clear intention to alleviate the pain, and that makes it unique."

Lozano says this study is a good step in beginning to understand the Neanderthals as a species with a wide range of adaptations to their environment and resources, even in the field of palliative medicine.

Neanderthals had a complex cultural organization and used important symbolic behaviors such as burials and the use of feathers and claws as a personal garments. They also had thorough knowledge of the natural resources of their environment. And Neanderthals from the El Sidrón Cave in Spain are known to have developed the ability to use medicinal plants, so they had some knowledge of primitive medical treatment.

Using toothpicks of plant origin to mitigate sore gums could be considered a type of rudimentary dental treatment, according to the researchers.

"In sum, the use of toothpicks can be considered one of the most ancient habits documented in our genus, Homo," the authors wrote in the journal. "Sometimes, this habit may be related to a primitive form of oral hygiene to remove food particles. But, if interproximal grooves are associated with a dental pathology such as that suffered by the Cova Foradà specimen, the habit of using a tool to pick the teeth may be considered early evidence of medical treatment to alleviate sore gums."