It's hard to imagine cavemen taking a great deal of pride in their teeth, but new research suggests our fussiness with oral hygiene has some pretty deep roots. Scientists studying one of Europe's oldest hominin fragments have discovered wooden fibers in the teeth of a 1.2 million year-old caveman. Their precise location suggests they are the remnants of habitual tooth-picking.
The findings come from researchers at Spain's Catalan Institute for Research and Advanced Studies and the Universtat Autonoma de Barcelona, who were examining the jawbone of a caveman discovered in 2007 in northern Spain.
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Their work meant removing the dental calculus (hardened plaque) from the set of chompers and then degrading and analyzing it to see what was hidden within. The team found evidence that the caveman consumed a balanced diet of starchy carbohydrates from raw plants and meat, and possibly grass seeds as well. This actually comprises the earliest direct evidence of foods consumed by early humans, say the researchers.
"Our evidence for the consumption of at least two different starchy plants, in addition to the direct evidence for consumption of meat and of plant-based raw materials suggests that this very early European hominin population had a detailed understanding of its surroundings and a broad diet," says study leader Karen Hardy.
These remnants of a long ago mealtime also appear to have defied the caveman's best efforts to clean his teeth. Non-edible wooden fibers were discovered adjacent to a groove at the bottom of the teeth, a location which suggests oral hygiene activities, according to the researchers. This predates the oldest known example of this type of dental cleaning: Similar wooden fibers discovered in a 49,000-year-old Neanderthal earlier this year.
The research was published in the journal The Science of Nature.