Although many people would have you believe that before people ate refined sugars we had few oral health problems, it seems that people have been suffering from oral health problems since before the beginnings of modern humans. In particular, Homo erectus seems to have suffered from serious periodontal disease, with significant decline in bone levels between their teeth, so that even by the end of their relatively short lives (30-35 years on average) they had often lost most of their teeth.

It seems that the first culprits for oral hygiene problems were not grains and sugars, but meats, and the oral hygiene tool used to combat these problems was the toothpick.

How Old Is the Toothpick?

It’s hard to know how old toothpicks are. They don’t show up in the fossil finds until relatively modern times (see below). That’s probably because the materials of choice for toothpicks makes them unlikely to be preserved. Unlike stone tools like hand axes, scrapers, and spear tips, tools made of wood or bone–which would probably be preferred materials for making toothpicks–tend to decay and aren’t as common in the fossil record.

However, we do have good evidence that people used toothpicks in ancient times, long before the spread of humans from Africa, and before the beginnings of the modern H. sapiens. The evidence comes from wear on teeth, what researchers describe as “interproximal wear grooves,” that are located at the base of teeth at the gums. These grooves tend to be semicircular in shape, and if looked at under a microscope show tiny marks consistent with the kind of motions a toothpick might make against the tooth. The oldest of these date back to 1.84 million years ago. In an interview, the lead author pointed to the fact that human teeth are not well-suited to meat eating as causing oral health problems.

More recent finds even point to an incidence of toothpick overuse. Because of repeatedly using a toothpick, the man, who lived at Dmanisi in the Republic of Georgia, developed an infection between his teeth.

Why Don’t We Find More Toothpicks?

The mystery of toothpicks is still perplexing because, although wood and bone tools aren’t common, they do exist. In fact, bone sewing needles have been found that are as old as 60,000 years, but the first toothpicks we find don’t show up until they are made of bronze, and are associated with burials in Sumer, about 5000 years ago. These toothpicks were part of an essential set of personal grooming tools, often including an ear spoon and a pair of tweezers, that was worn around the neck of nobles.

Actually, we probably have found many toothpicks, we just don’t recognize them for what they are. If you look at descriptions of the finds in Sumer, early archaeologists were circumspect about describing the items found. They describe the three tools found in the grooming kit as “an ear-pick, a plain point, and a pair of tweezers.” Only later do they note that similar grooming kits among modern people include a toothpick.

It’s likely that many of the bone sewing needles were actually toothpicks, either instead of or in addition to their sewing function. They may have been pierced so that, like the Sumerian version, they could be worn around the neck or on a ring.

Modern Oral Hygiene Tools and Problems

It’s worth noting that, like ancient hygiene tools, modern oral hygiene tools can cause problems. Overuse of abrasive whitening toothpaste can lead to dental enamel wear. Overusing alcohol-containing mouthwash can actually erode your gums and worsen periodontal conditions. If you are having trouble with oral health problems, it’s best to talk to your dentist about the best solutions for correcting them rather than persist in a strategy that may do more harm than good.

For help maintaining your oral health in Las Vegas, please contact Dr. James B. Polley for an appointment today.