The Earliest Dental Work: A Hundred-Thousand Year Puzzle

neanderthal photo
Photo by erix!

How long do you think people have been practicing dentistry?

Aside from the earliest records of dental work–which some scholars say would be Sumeria, around seven thousand years ago–we’re not too sure. But a recent examination of Neanderthal remains from Croatia suggests that hominids may have been doing some light dental work as far back as 130 thousand years ago.

Using a light-based microscope, researchers studied teeth stored in the Croatian Natural History Museum since their discovery in 1905. What they found there was astounding: toothpick groove formations, dentin scratches, and ante-mortem lingual enamel fractures.

Neanderthals used tools for dental work?

In plain English, what they found was that a Neanderthal was using tools to address pain from an impacted tooth, over a hundred and twenty-five thousand years before any other record of similar behavior. In a way, it’s not surprising– we all know how much tooth-pain affects our lives. But to have concrete evidence of “dental manipulation” from such a distant period in human history is astounding!

Researchers, in the interest of scientific rigor, sought to rule out all manner of other explanations. Since the teeth were in an understandable context–that is, they were still in a recognizable arrangement, even though they were excavated in 1905–researchers were able to tell what part of the mouth these teeth came from. And as such, they were able to tell that the wear was exclusively on the tongue-side of the mouth. This, combined with the pattern of wear, suggests that the damage wasn’t due to something that happened after the Neanderthal’s death.

Tool use was more common than we thought!

Though the popular image of Neanderthals in the minds of many is one of sub-human intelligence and ability, finds like this suggest that there was some amount of complex tool-use and consideration going on in their lives. Combined with another find from the same site, where eagle talons were found to be used as jewelry, the research suggests that Neanderthals were able to “modify [their] personal environment by using tools,” according to Dr. Frayer, an author of the study.

If this is the case, then science has documented evidence that dentistry is one of those rare universal constants. We all have teeth, and we all need to keep those teeth healthy! No matter where–or when–we are, our mouths are important.

Luckily, dental technology has progressed since the days of the Neanderthals. We no longer have to make due with bits of bone, twigs, or grass-stems to fix issues in our mouths. Take a look at all the services Dr. Matthews provides— we guarantee they’re a bit better than what a Neanderthal has to offer!

Dan Matthews DDS
Dan Matthews Dan Matthews DDS The Park at Eanes Creek,
4407 Bee Cave Road
Building 2, Suite 221
Austin, Texas, 78746
(512) 452-2273
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