You know how it is. You go to the dentist, and the dental hygienist begins cleaning your teeth, making strange “hmms” and “huh” noises. And you know what’s coming. You wait for it with a sense of dread… “how often do you floss?”
Regardless of whether you tell the truth or not (call it “exaggerating” all you want, but plaque tells no lies!), it now appears that even the ancestors of humankind had better oral hygiene than many of us floss-fearing modern types. And when they had a toothache, they took care of it themselves!
Between 1.9 and 1.6 million years ago, the Neanderthals known as Homo habilis were in the habit of using “toothpicks” to remove food scraps trapped between their teeth.
One particular fossil showed evidence that an individual used a toothpick to try and alleviate the pain of gum inflammation—periodontal disease, to be more precise—as the use of toothpicks could help mitigate the sense of soreness.
This is the first known example of “pallative treatment with toothpicks, the oldest documented”, says researcher Maria Lozano. The fossil was found at Cova Forada, an archaeological site in Valencia, Spain.
That said, there are other examples of Neanderthals using toothpicks—visible in grooves caused by excess toothpick usage—that have nothing to do with gum or dental disease.
“However, in the case of Cova Forada,” says Lozano, “the toothpic was not only used as a primitive method of dental hygiene, but it is associated with a dental disease and with the clear intention to alleviate pain, and that makes it unique.”
Pain alleviation or not, one thing is clear: If ancient people were picking their teeth to get rid of stuck food millions of years ago… none of us “modern” humans have an excuse anymore for not flossing!