We often do not associate Neanderthals, our prehistoric cousins, with intelligence. Afterall, homo sapiens are still around today, yet there are no signs of Neanderthals after roughly 40,000 years ago. Much of what we know of these near-humans is from studying their fossilized bones and tools.

Recently, one research team from the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies made a new discovery by examining something that most scientists viewed as a waste product in the past: fossilized dental tartar.

human skull buried in the sand

What is Dental Tartar?

Dental tartar, also known as dental calculus, is neither a form of math nor a condiment (sorry I had to). Tartar is actually formed when plaque is allowed to build up and then is hardened by minerals found in saliva. This hardening kills the bacteria inside the plaque, but leaves the surface of your teeth discolored and rough which allows for more plaque to build up. If left unchecked, dental tartar can lead to gum disease, bad breath, and tooth decay.

Before the last decade or so, scientists simply cleaned this buildup off of fossils, thinking that it is simply a waste product. However, scientists have recently realized that dental tartar can lead to further insights about things like diet.

What This Means for Neanderthals

The team from the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies examined the dental tartar from the fossilized remains of a molar from an adult Neanderthal and found traces of conifer wood from a part of the tree that is non-edible. Because it is highly unlikely the Neanderthal would have confused this for food there is only two other explanations: either the Neanderthal was using his mouth as a third hand, or he was using the wood as a prehistoric toothbrush.

There is Precedent

It is important to note that there is evidence to suggest that other distant relatives of humans also took care of their teeth with tools. A toothpick was found on a Homo erectus specimen that dates back 1.84 million years. The earliest signs of a form of general dentistry popped up 14,000 years ago in ancient Egypt, so it is clear that the concern for clean teeth goes back well before written history.

Concerned About Dental Tartar?

Dental tartar can be easily avoided by practicing good dental hygiene. You should make it a habit to brush twice daily followed by a mouthwash rinse, and to floss once per day. Bi-annual visits to the dentist also go a long way to protecting your teeth.

If you live in the Columbia area and are looking for a great dentist contact Smile Columbia Dentistry at (803) 781-9090 to schedule an appointment with Dr. Adam Hahn today.