• Researchers find the first evidence of non-edible material in the mouth of a Neanderthal individual

    April 11, 2016

    New study shows remains of wood fiber which could have been used for oral hygiene, as a consequence of using the mouth as a third hand or even inhaled or swallowed by accident

    Jaw of El Sidrón Neanderthal

    International research conducted to extract chemical compounds and microfossils within the mouth of Neanderthals, has revealed the presence of non-edible material, probably related to activities different than eating. The study, in which the University of Oviedo has participated, was conducted in El Sidrón (Asturias), with individuals that lived de 49.000 years ago.

    The findings suggest 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 fiber (285 x 40 cm) 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.

    The study, in which the University of Oviedo has participated, was conducted in El Sidrón (Asturias), with individuals that lived de 49.000 years ago.

    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, in which professor of the University of Oviedo Marco de la Rasilla has collaborated, was directed by Karen Hardy, ICREA researcher at the Department of Prehistory of the UAB. She 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.


    • 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

    Photographs: CSIC / UAC

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