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How to Clean Your Teeth Like a Caveman

By Craig Smith
May 12, 2017

Could brushing your teeth be far more ancient than we thought? New evidence from a rare find deep in the mountains of northwest Spain sheds light on how ancient peoples dealt with dental problems. The concept of toothbrushing has been around for millennia, and for good reason: dental problems bring pain, infection and true danger to one's health, especially in times when the effectiveness of antibiotics were not well-understood.


The first toothbrushes were discovered buried in tombs with the ancient Egyptian royalty circa 3000 BC, carved from fibrous wood with one end sharpened to use as a pick, and the other frayed to use as a brush. The Egyptians used a surprisingly sophisticated vinegar and pumice paste to provide whitening action as well. Many thousands of years later, Chinese under the Tang dynasty in 618 AD created a toothbrush that would later give rise to the modern style - that is, bristles attached to a handle. The Chinese favored boar bristles collected in Siberia, since the cold made the boars produce stiffer hair. These were then threaded into a bamboo, bone or ivory handle. Soon after, early European travellers to China brought the idea to the Western world. Until recently, that was the narrative preferred by historians, at least.

Dr. Karen Hardy, an archaeologist studying the lives and behavior of prehistoric cave people in the Sima del Elefante, noticed tiny interproximal grooves that suggested something had been wedged in between them repeatedly over the course of the person’s life. However, with very little organic matter preserved along with the fossils, there was no conclusive evidence of what the primitive human had used for this purpose. Dr. Hardy, however, knew her dentistry, and guessed that something of the tool might still have been left in the fossil - calculus.

As any dentist knows, in just a few days sticky plaque is calcified into rock-hard calculus so resilient it can fossilize rather than decay as most other organic material would. Using special rock-excavation drills modified for the world’s longest hygiene recall, Dr. Hardy collected samples of this preserved calculus to break down and analyze microscopically.

The analysis revealed that in addition to the seeds, insects, grass and meat particles trapped within the ancient biofilm, long fibers of indigestible woody material were collected in parallel lines between the the teeth, suggesting a fibrous tool like the Egyptians used to clean their teeth.

So how did cavemen clean their teeth? Dr. Hardy’s evidence indicates they probably selected a tough, fibrous twig and chewed on it to allow small portions of woody bristles to be pushed between the teeth in an attempt to remove plaque and bits of food. This discovery is important for archaeologists, as many other jawbone fossils bear calculus that can be examined to uncover behavioral and dietary information about our earliest ancestors.


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Toothbrush | History (2016). . In Wikipedia. Retrieved from

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