3 Nov 2017
The world’s oldest dentist is a Neanderthal
Researchers taking a second look at some prehistoric teeth found in Croatia have revealed that Neanderthals were practicing dentistry 130,000 years ago.
Neanderthals went extinct in Europe about 40,000 years ago, and there is some debate over whether humans interbred with them, outcompeted them for food and shelter, or ruthlessly killed them off after undergoing a kind of brain upgrade around 70,000BC.
In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari argues that homo sapiens came to dominate the world because since their “cognitive revolution” they were the only animal that could cooperate flexibly in large numbers.
This ability to believe in abstact things existing purely in the imagination like political structures, gods and money meant they could vastly outperform rivals and prey. Yet the findings from Croatia undermine previous studies that painted Neanderthals as having ‘subhuman’ abilities.
Researchers from the University of Kansas analysed four teeth and discovered toothpick groove formation and dentin scratches. The scratches and grooves on the teeth suggest they were causing irritation and discomfort for some time, and two of the teeth had been pushed out of their normal position. Chips on the teeth were on the tongue side and at different angles, suggesting that the damage happened when the Neanderthal was alive.
Professor David Frayer, who led the 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.
“Everybody has had dental pain, and they know what it's like to have a problem with an impacted tooth. The scratches indicate this individual was pushing something into his or her mouth to get at that twisted premolar.
“Neanderthals are not the bumbling fools most people think of when their name is mentioned. This study just adds another piece of evidence to their complex behaviour.
“It fits into a pattern of a Neanderthal being able to modify its personal environment by using tools, because the toothpick grooves, whether they are made by bones or grass stems or who knows what, the scratches and chips in the teeth, they show us that Neanderthals were doing something inside their mouths to treat the dental irritation. Or at least this one was.”
Previously, the oldest known evidence of dental work dated from 14,000 years ago, and rudimentary fillings using bitumen have been discovered in Italy dating from 13,000 years ago.
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