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Primitive Problem: How Neanderthals Dealt with Gum Disease

Posted on 10/31/2013 by Tigard Family Dental
"If you often find yourself cleaning your teeth with a toothpick following a satisfying meal, you may have more in common with our prehistoric predecessors than you'd think.

Researchers had previously uncovered evidence suggesting the use of toothpicks to remove scraps of food from between teeth dates all the back to the time of Homo habilis, a species that lived between 1.9 and 1.6 million years ago. Now scientists examining the Cova Forada Neanderthal fossil have discovered this ancient ancestor also used toothpicks to help alleviate pain caused by oral diseases, such as inflammation of the gums. This discovery, published recently in the journal PLOS ONE, marks the oldest recorded case of pain relieving treatment of oral disease using toothpicks.

Researchers believe the Neanderthal examined in the study used a toothpick to help easy the discomfort he was experiencing from periodontal disease, an advanced form of gum disease that ranks as the leading cause of adult tooth loss and one of the best reasons you need to floss nightly.

"This disease usually causes bloody and inflamed gums, so the systematic use of toothpicks could mitigate sore gums," reports professor Marina Lozano, a co-author of the study at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona in an interview with the website Red Orbit. "However, in the case of Cova Forada, the toothpick was not only used as a primitive method of dental hygiene, but it is associated with dental disease and with the clear intention to alleviate the pain, and that makes it unique."

We consider this finding an important step toward furthering our current understanding of Neanderthals as a species, and how they managed to adapt to their resources and environment, even in regards to primitive medicine.

Despite their perceived primitive nature, Neanderthals actually lived in a complex culture for the time, and even engaged in such symbolic behaviors as burials and the use of claws and feathers as jewelry. Neanderthals also enjoyed an intimate knowledge of their environment and available natural resources, according to anthropologists. Evidence even exists from the El Sidron Cave excavation in Spain that Neanderthals living in the region used medicinal plants for rudimentary medical treatments.

Using toothpicks made from plants to alleviate sore gums could be considered a form of rudimentary dental care, says researchers.

Reflecting on their findings, researchers concluded that the use of toothpicks should be considered one of the old habits documented by humans and our closest ancestors. While the use of a toothpick could just be considered a rudimentary form of oral hygiene to remove lingering food particles, evidence that Neanderthals used toothpicks to treat gum disease could be considered early evidence of medical treatments.

So while the art of dentistry has come a long way in just the last 100 years, consider the long tradition and history you're following the next time you reach for a toothpick, and embrace your inner caveman. If you have any other questions about gum disease talk to your experts in dental implants in Tigard, OR at Tigard family Dental.

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