New Study Says That Toothpicks Were Already in Use 1 Million Years Ago


Thus far, the oldest known example of toothpicks being used for dental cleaning was from the remains of a Neanderthal some 49,000-year-old. Researchers now say they’ve found evidence that our 1.2-million-year-old human relatives used toothpicks.

In the study, the results of which were recently published in the journal The Science of Nature (Naturwissenschaften), researchers explain that wood fibers were found in a groove at the bottom of a tooth in a 1.2-million-year-old hominin jawbone. The jawbone was discovered at an excavation in northern Spain and the position of the fibers suggest they came from regular tooth picking.

The researchers also found hardened plaque (tartar) on all the teeth in the jawbone except one. Analyzing the tartar showed that these people ate a balanced diet of starchy foods and meat, and did not cook their food. Grass seeds may have been part of the hominin’s diet. This is indicated by some of the starch granules found in the tartar. Conifer pollen grains were also found in the tartar, suggesting that the hominin lived near a forest.

Study leader Karen Hardy is with the Catalan Institute for Research and Advanced Studies and the Universtat Autonoma de Barcelona in Spain. She suggests that it is possible that these ancient grasses were used as food, as grasses produce many seeds in a dense head. These may be chewed conveniently, especially before the seeds fully mature, and dry out and scatter.

The uncharred fibers and intact starch granules found on the teeth suggest that these hominins did not know how to cook food using a fire. The researchers also noted that the teeth showed signs of heavy use and were worn down. This suggests they were used to grip and chew raw materials.

In a journal news release, Hardy commented that the direct evidence for consumption of plant based raw materials and raw meat, combined with the evidence pointing to the consumption of at least two different starchy plants, suggests that this very early European hominin population understood its surroundings in detail and consumed a broad diet.