The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A scientist needed help studying Neanderthal teeth — so he asked his dentist

Scientists recruited a dentist to help them analyze teeth that belonged to a 130,000-year-old Neanderthal. Their conclusion? The poor soul suffered a lot of dental problems, and probably tried to solve them with a toothpick. (Video: The University of Kansas)

Dentist Joe Gatti has been cleaning David Frayer’s teeth for 30 years, and they’ve been friends almost as long. So when Frayer arrived at his office with the offer of something cool to show Gatti, the Lawrence, Kan., dentist took it in stride.

The objects of interest were casts of four teeth, each yellowed with age and showing signs of heavy use. The specimens had been uncovered in a cave near the town of Krapina in Croatia. And they belonged to a 130,000-year-old Neanderthal.

I needed someone to give me a professional, clinical interpretation of what the situation was,” Frayer, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Kansas, told The Washington Post.

The dentist considered the specimens. Sure, his patients are usually alive. And they’re usually Homo sapiens. But a tooth is a tooth — even when it comes from the Pleistocene Epoch.

The result of Gatti and Frayer’s collaboration is a new study published Wednesday in the Bulletin of the International Association for Paleodontology describing the dental condition of one unfortunate Neanderthal. The individual had an impacted molar (a tooth that failed to emerge in the correct position), fractured cusps and scratches from overzealous toothpick use — evidence of what may have been a primitive attempt to treat mouth pain.

It’s not a pretty situation, Gatti said — but not so different from that of a 23-year-old man he had to lecture the other day about better brushing habits.

“It struck me that they are not much different from ours,” Gatti said. “I mean, they’re a little larger, but the wear patterns and stuff you see is not terribly different from what I see in my patients every day.”

The teeth came from the Krapina cave, a rich Neanderthal fossil site in northern Croatia. When archaeologists first unearthed the Krapina fossils in 1899, scientists had only just reached the conclusion that Neanderthals were indeed a different kind of human. Put off by the fossils’ stocky stature and protruding brow, and blinded by their own prejudices, turn-of-the-century researchers regarded the hominids as dimwitted barbarians. “The thoughts and desires which once dwelt within it never soared beyond those of a brute,” wrote geologist William King, the first to recognize Neanderthals as a different species.

The caricature has persisted for more than a century, but recent discoveries suggest that Neanderthals don’t deserve it. They built impressive structures, wore jewelrycared for their sick and elderly, even created art.

“The more we know about Neanderthal behavior, the more they seem to resemble the kinds of behaviors that we see in the people that replaced them,” Frayer said. “They’re like us.”

During a recent trip to Croatia — Frayer has been studying the Krapina fossils for the better part of 30 years — he began to wonder about the four aged teeth he had seen among the specimens. Could Neanderthals’ sophistication have extended to dentistry?

Based on the grooves found on the teeth, Frayer argues that the answer is yes. Toothpick scratches have been found on Neanderthals' not-so-pearly whites going back 2 million years, although no actual Neanderthal toothpicks have been found. And this is the first case that Frayer is aware of showing evidence of toothpick use alongside a suite of dental problems.

The markings on the teeth are accompanied by bony growth, Frayer said, indicating that they were definitely created during the Neanderthal’s life (rather than reflecting damage after death). And the shape and alignment of the scratches suggest that the Neanderthal was pushing a reed or sharp bone into his or her mouth to deal with some kind of discomfort. (The scientists do not have a jaw for the individual and can’t determine its gender.)

“The Neanderthal was presumably trying to treat itself . . . probing the space between the teeth to get at that twisted molar,” Frayer said. “Anybody who has ever had an impacted tooth knows what that’s like.”

Read more:

Humans and Neanderthals may have interbred 50,000 years earlier than previously thought

Neanderthals may have invented jewelry

Neanderthal microbes reveal surprises about what they ate — and whom they kissed