Toothpicking is one of the most basic oral hygiene habits today and has been documented from the beginning of the Homo genus to modern times. Now, Spanish researchers have presented a Neanderthal maxilla that shows evidence that this hominid also used toothpicks to alleviate pain. According to the scientists, it is the oldest documented case of palliative treatment of dental disease with this tool.
The maxilla was found in the Cova Foradà cave, which is located in the middle of the central Mediterranean coast on the Iberian Peninsula. Although the researchers found no evidence of dental caries, dental calculus, abscesses or bone perforation, they were able to detect significant alveolar bone loss on the maxilla, with a bone mass reduction of 4 to 8 mm, which denotes serious periodontal disease.
In addition, interproximal grooves were documented on the distal surfaces, which were caused by the action of pulling some type of hard, narrow object, such as a toothpick, between adjacent teeth, according to the researchers. Thus, they suggested that toothpicks were used in an attempt to ease the inflammation of the gums.
As the Neanderthals had thorough knowledge of the natural resources of their environment and developed the ability to use plants for medical treatment, the use of toothpicks of plant origin to alleviate the pain of sore gums could be considered a type of rudimentary dental treatment, the researchers concluded.
The study, titled “Toothpicking and periodontal disease in a Neanderthal specimen from Cova Foradà site (Valencia, Spain)”, was published in the October issue of the PLOS ONE journal. It was conducted by researchers at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, in collaboration with the Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social, a transdisciplinary institute focusing on research, training and education in earth and life sciences.