It was the worst known toothache of prehistoric times.
New evidence suggests an early Neanderthal living about 175,000 years ago in France had a mouthful of infection. Hollow pockets in its fossilized lower jaw show where severe abscesses ate into the bone. And exposed, worn tips of tooth roots suggest the individual had gummed food, despite feeling what must have been excruciating pain.
"It makes my jaw hurt just to look at it," said Erik Trinkaus, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis and co-author of a new study on the specimen in today's issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The jaw fragment shows the individual had been missing teeth for some time before death in his or her late 40s. And this suggests that pre-Neanderthals may have been a somewhat caring bunch.
"It's likely this person had the help of others," Trinkaus said. "Other people could have chewed the food for this person, they could have cut it up into pieces that the individual could swallow, or they may have offered soft bits of a kill like brain tissue or the pancreas."
Meat-Eaters Lived In Harsh Conditions
Evidence has suggested that Neanderthals and their earlier predecessors, the pre-Neanderthals survived mainly on a diet of meat. Meat, Trinkaus points out, would have been very hard to chew with a mouth wracked with infection. And the extent of the infection, alone, was likely debilitating to the entire body of the person.
Neanderthals, believed to be a cousin species of early man, lived in Europe and the Middle East from about 130,000 to 28,000 years ago before mysteriously disappearing from the fossil record. Fossils of early Neanderthals, or pre-Neanderthals date back as far as 300,000 years ago. The jawbone fossil with apparent severe tooth rot was recovered from a settlement of pre-Neanderthals in a limestone rock shelter known as the Bau de l'Aubesier in the Gorges de la Nesque in Vaucluse, France.
Other fossils have suggested that more recent communities of the muscular, big-browed people may have cared for ailing members of their clans. But this is the earliest evidence yet to point to that kind of behavior.
For a species that likely spent all or most of their time scouring for food and simply surviving the harsh conditions of the Ice Age, any indication of brotherly love is striking.
"We know in apes and monkeys that once they can no longer chew their food, they die," said Trinkaus.
But others aren't as convinced that having a severe tooth problem necessarily prevented the pre-Neanderthal from surviving by his or her own means.
Toothless, But Independent?
"Neanderthals had a very sophisticated stone tool kit," said Curtis Mearean, an anthropologist at Arizona State University. "This person could have easily taken flesh and pounded it into a mush with stone tools."
Other archaeological finds have offered more clear-cut evidence of communal caring. One set of Neanderthal bones found at Iraq's Shanidar cave showed an individual was likely blind and had suffered a crippling injury to the left side. Still with the probable help of others, the person had lived long after the injury.
In another site, the fossilized bones revealed a young Neanderthal had a deformed neck but had survived many years, as did a middle-aged Neanderthal with inner ear balance problems, says Trinkaus.
But all of those previous examples have been from more recent fossils of about 50,000 years ago. The pre-Neanderthal with the severe toothache lived 175,000 to 200,000 years ago.
While the pre-Neanderthal may have received some help during life, in death he or she was likely abandoned to rot.
"These people did not bury their dead," said Trinkaus. "The body was probably left on the surface and then eaten by scavengers."