The simple wooden toothpick is among the simplest manufactured objects and is considered the oldest instrument for cleaning teeth, one that encompasses more than just the human species.
Similar items are used by several higher primates to rub or pick their teeth, and growing archaeological evidence from across Europe suggests that Neanderthals also had a habit of removing food from their mouths. We know this because it has left quite a mark on his molars.
A recently analyzed tooth, discovered in a Polish cave in 2010, has now been found with a spindle-shaped groove in the side, indicating the in and out movement of a toothpick.
Dental measurements of the upper premolar and radiocarbon dating of the area suggest that it once belonged to a male Neanderthal in his 30s who was cleaning his teeth in this way 46,000 years ago.
“It appears that the owner of the tooth used oral hygiene. Probably between the last two teeth there were remains of food that had to be removed,” explains archaeologist Wioletta Nowaczewska from the University of Wroclaw in an article for Science in Poland.
“We don’t know what a toothpick made of: a piece of twig, a piece of bone or a fish bone. It had to be a fairly rigid cylindrical object, which the individual used often enough to leave a clear trace.” “
On: a) The radial wear pattern inside the premolar; b) A vertical toothpick groove visible under the wear face, on the right.
Some other teeth have been found in Stajnia Cave, near Krakow, and are also believed to belong to Neanderthals. Some of them even show similar attempts at prehistoric dental hygiene, although their deterioration makes them more difficult to study.
The remarkable condition of this recently analyzed molar has allowed scientists to perform 2D and 3D analyzes of its enamel, which is generally thinner in Neanderthals compared to Homo sapiens.
Further analysis of the mitochondrial DNA has confirmed that this tooth most likely belonged to a Neanderthal and, according to the authors, the main groove of the tooth is most likely due to mechanical abrasion.
The location, shape, orientation, and appearance of this scratch are consistent with other signs of Neanderthals moving teeth in other parts of Europe.
In 2017, archaeologists announced the discovery of a unique Neanderthal tooth, found in present-day Croatia, showing remains of chipping and chiseling from 130,000 years ago, possibly as a way to relieve pain.
In 2013, even older Neanderthal teeth were discovered again, unearthed in present-day Spain, with similar impressions. A piece of wood was even found stuck between two of the molars.
Other materials that Neanderthals could have used to clean their teeth include bones, tendons, and grass, although these have yet to be confirmed in the archaeological record.
According to the famous engineer Henry Petroski, who wrote an entire book on the toothpick, this humble instrument is one of the most convenient and clever tools in human possession, requiring no parts to assemble, no maintenance or instructions for use, or in at least, it shouldn’t.
At the hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy, the very words that finally push scientist Wonko to the social hermitage are instructions for the toothpick, which is believed to be the oldest human habit.
As Wonko remarked, “any civilization that had hitherto lost its mind to need to include a set of detailed instructions for use in a toothpick packet was no longer a civilization that I could live in and stay sane.”
Even Neanderthals, apparently stereotypically assumed to be primitive brutes, had enough common sense and intuition to use the toothpick, without much direction at all.
The study was published in Journal of Human Evolution.