Skip to main content

Neanderthals, trees and dental calculus: new evidence from El Sidrón

  • Anita Radini (a1), Stephen Buckley (a1), Antonio Rosas (a2), Almudena Estalrrich (a2), Marco de la Rasilla (a3) and Karen Hardy (a4)...

Analysis of dental calculus is increasingly important in archaeology, although the focus has hitherto been on dietary reconstruction. Non-edible material has, however, recently been extracted from the dental calculus of a Neanderthal population from the 49 000-year-old site of El Sidrón, Spain, in the form of fibre and chemical compounds that indicate conifer wood. Associated dental wear confirms that the teeth were being used for non-dietary activities. These results highlight the importance of dental calculus as a source of wider biographical information, and demonstrate the need to include associated data within research, in particular tooth wear, to maximise this valuable resource.

Hide All
Albert R.M., Berna F. & Goldberg P.. 2012. Insights on Neanderthal fire use at Kebara Cave (Israel) through high-resolution study of prehistoric combustion features: evidence from phytoliths and thin sections. Quaternary International 247: 278–93.
Aldeias V., Goldberg P., Sandgathe D., Berna F., Dibble H.L., McPherron S.P., Turq A. & Rezek Z.. 2012. Evidence for Neandertal use of fire at Roc de Marsal (France). Journal of Archaeological Science 39: 2414–23.
Badal E., Villaverde V. & Zilhão J.. 2011. The fire of Iberian Neanderthals. Wood charcoal from three new Mousterian sites in the Iberian Peninsula. SAGVNTVM Extra 11: 7778.
Balter M. 2014. The killing ground. Science 344: 1080–83. 10.1126/science.344.6188.1080
Barton R.N.E. 2000. Mousterian hearths and shellfish: late Neanderthal activities in Gibraltar, in Stringer C.B., Barton R.N.E. & Finlayson J.C. (ed.) Neanderthals on the edge: 150th anniversary conference of the Forbes’ Quarry discovery, Gibraltar: 211–20. Oxford: Oxbow.
Blatt S.H., Redmond B.G., Cassman V. & Sciulli P.W.. 2011. Dirty teeth and ancient trade: evidence of cotton fibres in human dental calculus from Late Woodland, Ohio. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 21: 669–78.
Blondiaux J. & Charlier P.. 2008. Palaeocytology in skeletal remains: microscopic examination of putrefaction fluid deposits and dental calculus of skeletal remains from French archaeological sites. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 18: 110.
Boëda E., Connan J., Dessort D., Muhesen S., Mercier N., Valladas H. & Tisnérat N.. 1996. Bitumen as a hafting material on Middle Palaeolithic artefacts. Nature 380: 336–38.
Bonfiglioli B., Mariotti V., Facchini F., Belcastro M.G. & Condemi S.. 2004. Masticatory and non‐masticatory dental modifications in the Epipalaeolithic necropolis of Taforalt (Morocco). International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 14: 448–56.
Brothwell D.R. 1963. The macroscopic dental pathology of some earlier human populations, in Brothwell D.R. (ed.) Dental anthropology: 2788. Oxford: Pergamon.
Brown T. & Molnar S.. 1990. Interproximal grooving and task activity in Australia. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 81: 545–53.
Buckley S., Usai D., Jakob T., Radini A. & Hardy K.. 2014. Dental calculus reveals unique insights into food items, cooking and plant processing in prehistoric central Sudan. PLoS ONE 9 (7): e100808.
Burjachs F., López-García J.M., Allué E., Blain H.A., Rivals F., Bennàsar H. & Expósito I.. 2011. Palaeoecology of Neanderthals during Dansgaard–Oeschger cycles in northeastern Iberia (Abric Romaní): from regional to global scale. Quaternary International 247: 2637.
Clement A.F., Hillson S.W. & Aiello L.C.. 2012. Tooth wear, Neanderthal facial morphology and the anterior dental loading hypothesis. Journal of Human Evolution 62 (3): 367–76.
Courty M.A., Carbonell E., Vallverdú Poch J. & Banerjee R.. 2012. Microstratigraphic and multi-analytical evidence for advanced Neanderthal pyrotechnology at Abric Romani (Capellades, Spain). Quaternary International 247: 294312.
Eckhardt R.B. & Piermarini A.L.. 1988. Interproximal grooving of teeth: additional evidence and interpretation. Current Anthropology 49: 663–71.
Eshed V., Gopher A. & Hershkovitz I.. 2006. Tooth wear and dental pathology at the advent of agriculture: new evidence from the Levant. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 130: 145–59.
Estalrrich A. & Rosas A.. 2013. Handedness in Neandertals from the El Sidrón (Asturias, Spain): evidence from instrumental striations with ontogenetic inferences. PLoS ONE 8 (5): e62797.
Estalrrich A. & Rosas A. 2015. Division of labor by sex and age in Neandertals: an approach through the study of activity-related dental wear. Journal of Human Evolution 80: 5163.
Fernández Peris J., González V.B., Blasco R., Cuartero F., Fluck H., Sañudo P. & Verdasco C.. 2012. The earliest evidence of hearths in Southern Europe: the case of Bolomor Cave (Valencia, Spain). Quaternary International 247: 267–77.
Finlayson C., Barton R. & Stringer C.. 2001. The Gibraltar Neanderthals and their extinction. Les premiers hommes modernes de la Péninsule Ibérique. Trabalhos de Arqueologia 17: 117–22.
Fiorenza L., Benazzi S. & Kullmer O.. 2011. Para-masticatory wear facets and their functional significance in hunter–gatherer maxillary molars. Journal of Archaeological Science 38: 2182–89.
Formicola V. 1988. Interproximal grooving of teeth: additional evidence and interpretation. Current Anthropology 29: 663–71.
Frayer D.W. & Russell M.D.. 1987. Artificial grooves on the Krapina Neanderthal teeth. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 74: 393405.
Gerola F.M. 1988. Biologia vegetale: sistematica filogenetica. Torino: Unione Tipografico Editrice Torinese.
Goren-Inbar N., Werker E. & Feibel C.S.. 2002. The Acheulian site of Gesher Benot Ya'aqov, Israel. The wood assemblage. Oxford: Oxbow.
Grünberg J. 2002. Middle Palaeolithic birch-bark pitch. Antiquity 76: 1516.
Hardy K. In press. Plants as raw materials, in Hardy K. & Kubiak Martens L. (ed.) Wild harvest: plants in the Hominin and pre-agrarian human worlds. Oxford: Oxbow.
Hardy K., Blakeney A., Copeland L., Kirkham J., Wrangham R.W. & Collins M.. 2009. Starch granules, dental calculus and new perspectives on ancient diet. Journal of Archaeological Science 36: 248–55.
Hardy K., Buckley S., Collins M.J., Estalrrich A., Brothwell D.R., Copeland L., García-Tabernero A., García-Vargas S., de la Rasilla M., Lalueza-Fox C., Huguet R., Bastir M., Santamaría D., Madella M., Wilson J., Cortés A. & Rosas A.. 2012. Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus. Naturwissenschaften 99: 617–26.
Hardy K., Buckley S. & Huffman M.. 2013. Neanderthal self-medication in context. Antiquity 337: 873–78.
Hardy K., Radini A., Buckley S., Sarig R., Gopher A. & Barkai R.. In press. Dental calculus reveals potential respiratory irritants and ingestion of essential plant-based nutrients at Lower Palaeolithic Qesem Cave Israel. Quaternary International.
Henry A.G. & Piperno D.R.. 2008. Using plant microfossils from dental calculus to recover human diet: a case study from Tell al-Raqā'i, Syria. Journal of Archaeological Science 35: 1943–50.
Henry A.G., Ungar P.S., Passey B.H., Sponheimer M., Rossouw L., Bamford M., Deruiter D.J. & Berger L.. 2012. The diet of Australopithecus sediba . Nature 487: 9093.
Henry A.G., Brooks A.S. & Piperno D.R.. 2014. Plant foods and the dietary ecology of Neanderthals and early modern humans. Journal of Human Evolution 69: 4454.
Hershkovitz I., Kelly J., Latimer B., Rothschild B.M., Simpson S., Polak J. & Rosenberg M.. 1997. Oral bacteria in Miocene Sivapithecus . Journal of Human Evolution 33: 507–12.
Hinton R.J. 1981. Form and patterning of anterior tooth wear among aboriginal human groups. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 54: 555–64.
Hlusko L.J. 2003. The oldest hominid habit? Experimental evidence for toothpicking with grass stalks. Current Anthropology 44: 738–41.
Krueger K.L. & Ungar P.S.. 2012. Anterior dental microwear texture analysis of the Krapina Neandertals. Central European Journal of Geosciences 4: 651–62.
Lalueza-Fox C., Rosas A., Estalrrich A., Gigli E., García-Tabernero A., García-Vargas S., Sánchez-Quinto F., Ramírez O., Civit S., Bastir M., Huguet R., Santamaría D. & de la Rasilla M.. 2011. Genetic evidence for patrilocal mating behaviour among Neandertal groups. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 108: 250–53.
Langley M.C., Clarkson C. & Ulm S.. 2008. Behavioural complexity in Eurasian Neanderthal populations: a chronological examination of the archaeological evidence. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 18: 289307.
Laurence A.R., Thoms A.V., Bryant V.M & McDonough C.. 2011. Airborne starch granules as a potential contamination source at archaeological sites. Journal of Ethnobiology 31: 213–32.
Li M.Q., Yang X.Y., Wang H., Wang Q., Jia X. & Ge Q.S.. 2010. Starch grains from dental calculus reveal ancient plant foodstuffs at Chenqimogou site, Gansu Province. Science China Earth Sciences 53: 694–99.
Lieverse A.R. 1999. Diet and the aetiology of dental calculus. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 9: 219–32.<219::AID-OA475>3.0.CO;2-V
Lozano M., Bermúdez de Castro J.M., Carbonell E. & Arsuaga J.L.. 2008. Non-masticatory uses of anterior teeth of Sima de los Huesos individuals (Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain). Journal of Human Evolution 55: 713–28.
Lozano M., Mosquera M., de Castro J.M.B., Arsuaga J.L. & Carbonell E.. 2009. Right-handedness of Homo heidelbergensis from Sima de los Huesos (Atapuerca, Spain) 500,000 years ago. Evolution and Human Behavior 30: 369–76.
Lozano M., Subirà M.E., Aparicio J., Lorenzo C. & Gómez-Merino G.. 2013. Toothpicking and periodontal disease in a Neanderthal specimen from Cova Foradà site (Valencia, Spain). PLoS ONE 8 (10): e76852.
MacPhee T. & Cowley G.. 1975. Essentials of periodontology and periodontics. Oxford: Blackwell Scientific.
MacKenzie M. 1991. Androgynous objects: string bags and gender in central New Guinea. Philadelphia (PA): Harwood Academic.
Mazza P.P.A., Martini F., Sala B., Magi M., Colombini M.P., Giachi G., Landucci F., Lemorini C., Modugno F. & Ribechini E.. 2006. A new Palaeolithic discovery: tar-hafted stone tools in a European Mid-Pleistocene bone-bearing bed. Journal of Archaeological Science 33: 1310–18.
Mickleburgh H.L. & Pagán-Jiménez J.R.. 2012. New insights into the consumption of maize and other food plants in the pre-Columbian Caribbean from starch grains trapped in human dental calculus. Journal of Archaeological Science 39: 2468–78.
Niklasson M., Zackrisson O. & Östlund L.. 1994. A dendroecological reconstruction of use by Saami of Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris L.) inner bark over the last 350 years at Sädvajaure, N. Sweden. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 3: 183–90.
Oakley K.P., Andrews P., Keeley L.H. & Clark J.D.. 1977. A reappraisal of the Clacton spearpoint. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 43: 1330.
Piperno D.R. & Dillehay T.D.. 2008. Starch grains on human teeth reveal early broad crop diet in northern Peru. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 105: 19622–27.
Puech P.F. & Gianfarani F.. 1988. Interproximal grooving of teeth: additional evidence and interpretation. Current Anthropology 29: 663–71.
Radini A., Nikita E. & Shillito L.-M.. 2016. Human dental calculus and a medieval urban environment, in Jervis B., Broderick L. & Grau-Sologestoa I. (ed.) Everyday life in medieval Europe: environmental and artefactual approaches to dwelling in town and country. Belgium: Brepols.
Roebroeks W. & Villa P.. 2011. On the earliest evidence for the habitual use of fire in Europe. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 108: 5209–14.
Rosas A., Estalrrich A., García-Vargas S., García-Tabernero A., Bastir M., Huguet R. & Peña-Melian A.. 2011. Los fósiles neandertales de la cueva de El Sidrón, in de la Rasilla M., Rosas A., Cañaveras J.C. & Lalueza-Fox C. (ed.) La cueva de El Sidrón (Borines, Piloña, Asturias). Investigación interdisciplinar de un grupo neanderta: 81116. Oviedo: Gobierno del Principado de Asturias.
Rosas A., Estalrrich A., García-Tabernero A., Bastir M., García-Vargas S., Sánchez-Meseguer A., Huguet R., Lalueza-Fox C., Peña-Melián A., Kranioti E., Santamaría D., de la Rasilla M. & Fortea J.. 2012. Les Néandertaliens d'El Sidrón (Asturies, Espagne). Actualisation d'un nouvelé chantillon. L'Anthropologie 116: 5776.
Rosas A., Estalrrich A., García-Vargas S., García-Tabernero A., Huguet R., Lalueza-Fox C. & de la Rasilla M.. 2013. Identification of Neandertal individuals in fragmentary fossil assemblages by means of tooth associations: the case of El Sidrón (Asturias, Spain). Comptes Rendus Palevol 12: 279–91.
Rots V. 2013. Insights into early Middle Palaeolithic tool use and hafting in Western Europe. The functional analysis of level IIa of the early Middle Palaeolithic site of Biache-Saint-Vaast (France). Journal of Archaeological Science 40: 497506.
Ryan A.S. & Johanson D.C.. 1989. Anterior dental microwear in Australopithecus afarensis: comparisons with human and non-human primates. Journal of Human Evolution 18 (3): 235–68.
Sandgathe D.M. & Hayden B.. 2003. Did Neanderthals eat inner bark? Antiquity 77: 709–18.
Schäppi G.F., Taylor P.E., Staff I.A., Rolland J.M. & Suphioglu C.. 1999. Immunologic significance of respirable atmospheric starch granules containing major birch allergen Bet v 1. Allergy 54: 478–83.
Se K., Mei C., Inthavong K. & Tu J.. 2010. Inhalability of micron particles through the nose and mouth. Inhalation Toxicology 22: 287300.
Smith F.H., Smith M.O. & Schmitz R.. 2006. Human skeletal remains from the 1997 and 2000 excavations of cave deposits derived from the Kleine Feldhofer Grotte in the Neander Valley, Germany, in Schmitz R.W. (ed.) Neanderthal 1856–2006: 118208. Mainz: von Zabern.
Thieme H. 1997. Lower Palaeolithic hunting spears from Germany. Nature 385: 807–10.
Ungar P. S., Grine F.E., Teaford M.F. & Pérez-Pérez A.. 2001. A review of interproximal wear grooves on fossil hominin teeth with new evidence from Olduvai Gorge. Archives of Oral Biology 46: 285–92.
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 97: 411–15.
Volpato V., Macchiarelli R., Guatelli-Steinberg D., Fiore I., Bondioli L. & Frayer D.W.. 2012. Hand to mouth in a Neandertal: right-handedness in Regourdou 1. PLoS ONE 7 (8): e43949.
Warinner C., Rodrigues J.F.M., Vyas R., Trachsel C., Shved N., Grossmann J., Radini A., Hancock Y., Tito R.Y., Fiddyment S., Speller C., Hendy J., Charlton S., Luder H.U., Salazar-García D.C., Eppler E., Seiler R., Hansen L.H., Castruita J.A. Samaniego, Barkow-Osterreicher S., Teoh K.Y., Kelstrup C.D., Olsen J.V., Nanni P., Kawai T., Willerslev E., von Mering C., Lewis C.M. Jr, Collins M.J., Gilbert M.T.P., Rühli F. & Cappellini E.. 2014. Pathogens and host immunity in the ancient human oral cavity. Nature Genetics 46: 336–44.
Weslowski V., de Souza S.M. Ferraz Mendonça, Reinhard K.J. & Ceccantini G.. 2010. Evaluating microfossil content of dental calculus from Brazilian sambaquis. Journal of Archaeological Science 37: 1326–38.
Wood R.E., Higham T.F.G., de Torres T., Tisnérat-Laborde N., Valladas H., Ortiz J.E., Lalueza-Fox C., Sánchez-Moral S., Cañaveras J.C., Rosas A., Santamaría D. & de la Rasilla M.. 2013. A new date for the Neanderthals from El Sidrón cave (Asturias, northern Spain). Archaeometry 55: 148–58.
Zackrisson O., Östlund L., Korhonen O. & Bergman I.. 2000. The ancient use of Pinus sylvestris L. (Scots pine) inner bark by Sami people in northern Sweden, related to cultural and ecological factors. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 9: 99109.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 0003-598X
  • EISSN: 1745-1744
  • URL: /core/journals/antiquity
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 26
Total number of PDF views: 168 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 1175 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 23rd November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.