Monday, February 01, 2010

Neanderthal toothpicking - 100,000 year-old evidence from Poland

There's an interesting newsreport that summarizes a recent paper on the discovery, context and characteristics of three Neanderthal teeth recovered from Stajnia Cave, ResearchBlogging.orgin southern Poland. Urbanowski et al. (2010) suggest that, on the basis of the associated fauna, which comprises mostly reindeer as well as some red deer, horses and ibex, as well as some cut-marked cave bear bones, the most likely age for these remains falls towards the end of Oxygen Isotope Stage 5, somewhere between 80-100,000BP, which doesn't contradict the results of an infinite AMS radiocarbon date of >49,000BP. The report mentions three teeth, all of which are described has displaying a majority of features usually found in Neanderthal teeth, but only one (S5000) is described in detail in the paper. The supplementary evidence provided with the paper on the Naturwissenschaften web page provides solid information on the provenience of the teeth and their association with Micoquian stone tool assemblages.

This find is significant for a number of reasons, the first being that it represents the first set of hominin remains north of the Carpathians in Eastern Europe. Previously, while many Mousterian assemblages had been found in Poland, no human fossils had been associated with any of them.

Second, S5000, a permanent upper second molar, shows a degree of abrasion that, when the potentially faster Neanderthal enamel formation rate is factored in, suggests an age at death estimate of ca. 20 years or maybe a tad older for this individual. What DNA they were able to collect from the sample also indicates that the individual was a male, although it was too fragmentary to definitely establish that it similar to other Neanderthal mtDNA patterns.

Third, S5000 bears a "mesial interproximal groove" similar to that found on many other Neanderthal posterior teeth. The authors report that the morphology of the groove "was probably made by thin, stiff and hard objects used as toothpicks" (Urbanowski et al. 2010: 4). Long-time readers of AVRPI may remember a post I wrote on the discovery of two Neanderthal molars at Pinilla del Valle, Spain that also bore groove indicative of habitual toothpicking. Now, as I argued then, there is strong evidence that toothpicking may go back as far as 1.8 million years BP, based on the presence of a similar groove on the Omo L 894-1 RP3 specimen (Hlusko 2003). Further, and perhaps more interesting with regards to Neanderthals, Agger et al. (2004) pointed out that the reason people toothpick is that the teeth and gum are very sensitive to small irritants that get lodged between them mainly because the nerves critically important to the fine lingual control necessary for speech are located just below them. Thus, evidence of toothpicking in Neanderthals may represent circumstantial evidence of their capacity for speech.

Beyond this, the study is also interesting in that it briefly mentions the presence of tools and Levallois products made on "high quality flint form the southern part of the Polish Jura" (Urbanowski et al. 2010:2), which is interesting since the cave also apparently yielded "dozens of flint nodules" collected up to 12km away from the cave. This strongly suggests that raw material stockpiling was going on at the site, and that the site was used for prolonged periods of time, as suggested also by the density of artifacts recovered. Likewise, the presence of exotic, high quality raw material reinforces what is known about Neanderthal long-distance lithic raw material procurement patterns at certain sites. Unfortunately, not enough information is presented in the paper to assess the proportional importance of this behavior. Finally, and very intriguingly, the supplementary information to the paper underscores that bone technology might have been important for the occupants of Stajnia Cave, which is rarely associated with Neanderthals.

"The bone artefacts are now under taphonomical study, which reinforces the preliminary impression about the great importance of bone working in the Stajnia LMP assemblage. Numerous cut-marks have been revealed along with rich traces of reindeer antler processing." Urbanowski et al. 2010: Supp. 6)

Again, however, this is mentioned, with no additional provided, which forces one to take this with due caution until more thorough analyses are published. That said, both in terms of human paleontology and archaeology, this new site is yielding very important information that, it seems, will be very important in understanding Neanderthals and their behavior at the northern edge of their range.


Agger, W. A., T. L. McAndrews, and J. A. Hlaudy. 2004. On Toothpicking in Early Hominids. Current Anthropology 45:403-404.

Hlusko, L. J. 2003. The Oldest Hominid Habit? Experimental Evidence for Toothpicking with Grass Stalks. Current Anthropology 44: 738-741.

Urbanowski, M., Socha, P., Dąbrowski, P., Nowaczewska, W., Sadakierska-Chudy, A., Dobosz, T., Stefaniak, K., & Nadachowski, A. (2010). The first Neanderthal tooth found North of the Carpathian Mountains Naturwissenschaften DOI: 10.1007/s00114-010-0646-2

1 comment:

Ben said...

nice factoid, I like the toothpick image...