Toothless Neanderthal Got Help From Friends

ByABC News
September 10, 2001, 9:40 AM

Sept. 11 -- 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.