If you think it’s a daily challenge to take care of your teeth, think of what it must have been like for our distant ancestors, the Neanderthals. With the added challenge of hunting wild game with primitive tools and protecting oneself from the elements, one can hardly blame them if they didn’t always find the time for adequate dental care. However, recent findings indicate that they may have discovered how useful a toothpick can be while trying to dislodge that annoying bit of giant mammoth flesh and the grass seeds from between one’s molars.
What a 1.2-Million-Year-Old Tooth Tells Us
While this was long before toothpaste, dental floss and mouthwash was invented, examination of a 1.2-million-year-old tooth discovered during an excavation in Spain uncovered fragments of wood that researchers believe may show that early cavemen tried to pick at food stuck between their teeth. These ancient choppers were part of a piece of jawbone that came from one the earliest hominin remains ever found in Europe. In addition to a lot of tartar from insufficient (non-existent) brushing and flossing, the scientists found pieces of wood fiber in a bottom tooth’s groove, known as the interproximal groove, which is believed to be the result of frequent tooth picking. Before this amazing discovery, the only other known dental hygiene practice among Neanderthals was for a much younger human, just 49,000 years ago. The teeth were also worn down, which is what happens when you regularly chew on raw food, a practice which will most definitely require an after-dinner toothpick.
The One Time When Plaque and Tartar Are Useful
While we aren’t very happy when we discover plaque and tartar in our mouth, researchers are quite pleased when they find such substances in the mouths of Neanderthals, because it gives them ways to find out more about these ancient earth dwellers. Using an ultrasonic scaler, these European scientists were able to extract a tartar sample from what was a great deal of hardened plaque (dental calculus), which they then analyzed. Various microfossils trapped in the tartar included those pieces of inedible wood, along with animal tissue and plants — and even pieces of insect leg and butterfly wing. Despite prior belief that our distant ancestors were primarily carnivores, there is now evidence suggesting that they had a more balanced diet that also consisted of plants, grasses and insects.
Don’t Eat Starchy Plants Without Brushing Your Teeth!
Another food substance found in the tartar of our Neanderthal relative included starch granules, suggesting that their varied diet may have included grass seeds. There were also conifer pollen grains, which indicates that this particular hominin resided near a forest. The fact that the starch granules and uncharred fibers remained intact in the tarter also told the researchers that these Neanderthals had not yet learned how to cook their raw food. The modern-day lesson of this is clear: whether you’re eating French fries or ancient grasses, the result is the same. If this starchy stuff stays on your teeth for too long, bacteria in your mouth will begin to feed on it, creating the acid that causes tooth decay.
Do as your friendly Neanderthal would have done had he or she had access to modern tools and conveniences — brush and floss regularly!