Neanderthals, trees and dental calculus: new evidence from El Sidrón

Neanderthals, trees and dental calculus: new evidence from El Sidrůn
Physical evidence: fragment of wood tissue, consisting of lines of tracheids with lines of bordered pits (A1 and A2); the `crossŅ feature is visible under cross polarised light (B), and small flecks of calculus are still attached (C); scale bar = 100 m. Author: ICREA-UAB, Karen Hardy

An international research conducted by ICREA-UAB researcher Karen Hardy to extract chemical compounds and microfossils from Neanderthal dental plaque reveals the presence of non-edible material linked to extra-masticatory uses of teeth.


An international research conducted to extract chemical compounds and microfossils embedded in dental plaque from Neanderthal individuals reveals the presence of non-edible material very likely linked to extra-masticatory uses of teeth. The research was conducted with individuals of El Sidrón, Asturias, who lived 49,000 years ago.

The findings make up the first physical evidence of non-edible materials discovered “within the mouth” of a Neanderthal, researchers explain in an article published in the journal Antiquity.

Among the findings are small remains of conifer wood fibre (285 x 40 µm) found in one of the molars of an adult individual (number 5). According to the article, the remains cannot be confused with other edible parts of the conifer, and therefore are not related to the Neanderthals diet.

Finding this material, alongside the chemical compounds extracted and the wearing down and abrasion of the samples studied, reinforces the idea of teeth being used for activities that were not related to eating. Researchers believe this highlights the need to consider a wide range of possibilities that do not include food through which this type of material could have become embedded in the dental calculus. This is especially significant given the growing evidence of the use of teeth for non-nutritional purposes, such as in the case of the Neanderthals.

Although researchers cannot affirm whether the material discovered was used for oral hygiene purposes, as a consequence of using their mouth as a third hand or even if it was accidentally inhaled or ingested, its presence does confirm that non-edible material can be found on dental plaque.

The study was directed by Karen Hardy, ICREA researcher at the UAB Department of Prehistory. Hardy considers that this research broadens the perspective of information which can be obtained from ancient populations by using human dental calculus as a direct source of information on the lives of our closest hominid relatives.

Researchers from the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), the University of Oviedo and the University of York also participated in the study.

Article: Anita Radini, Stephen Buckley, Antonio Rosas, Almudena Estalrrich, Marco de la Rasilla and Karen Hardy (2016). Neanderthals, trees and dental calculus: new evidence from El Sidrón. Antiquity, 90, pp 290-301 doi:10.15184/aqy.2016.21

Interproximal cavity of the El Sidrón Neanderthal number 5; although the cavity is not fully developed, several micro abrasions can be observed on the surface. Author: CSIC.
Image of the interproximal side with the incipient cavity (polished enamel-dentine area). Author: CSIC.


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