As long as humans have had teeth, it’s probably safe to presume, we’ve been getting stuff stuck in them. And as long as we’ve been getting stuff stuck in our teeth, we’ve also been looking for ways to fish it out — which means our ancestors, before inventions like toothpaste and floss, had to get creative with what they had. As the Washington Post reported earlier this week, an archaeologist has discovered the first evidence of how cavemen brushed their teeth.
In a paper recently published in the journal Science of Nature, archaeologist Karen Hardy, a researcher at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies, analyzed the remains of a million-year-old jawbone taken from an archaeological site in northern Spain. The bone, one of the oldest human remains ever found in Europe, was too incomplete for researchers to determine the hominid species it belonged to – but luckily for Hardy, there was still plenty of plaque preserved on the teeth, waiting to be examined. “Once it’s there it stays there,” Hardy told the Post. “It’s kind of like a tattoo of biological information — a personal time capsule.”
Scraping off the plaque, the Post explained,
She was able to discern that they ate grass, seeds, other plants and meat — all raw, indicating they didn’t yet use fire to cook. She also found spores, tiny insect fragments and pollen grains — things they inhaled because they likely lived in a forest.
But the most compelling thing were pieces of indigestible wood fibers. Hardy believes they’re from small sticks early humans would jam in their teeth to clean them.
It’s more definitive proof of something that researchers have long suspected. As the Post noted, other fossils of human teeth “have tiny holes on the sides, called interproximal grooves, that are likely caused by repeated cleanings with sticks.” And modern chimpanzees, our closest animal relatives, have been observed doing the same thing.
It’s the kind of discovery that makes you grateful for innovations like mint flavoring or the soft-bristled toothbrush, but past research has shown that earlier humans — the same ones who shoved dirty sticks in their mouths — actually had cleaner, stronger teeth than we do, a by-product of the hunter-gatherer diet. It’s a pretty cruel irony: A mouthful of perfect teeth may be a modern obsession, but despite all our fancy tools, it’s now much harder to attain.