Scientists captivated by Neanderthal with unusually messed-up teeth

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Neanderthal man at London's Natural History Museum
Photo: Mike Kemp (Getty Images)

One of the best preserved Neanderthal skeletons ever discovered apparently had wicked nasty dental health. Scientists are calling the specimen Altamura Man, named for the town in southern Italy where he fell into a hole and starved to death more than 130,000 years ago. Cavers first found his weary bones in 1993, but new revelations about his grungy choppers have scientists reaching for their notepads. Also their Colgate and dental floss, probably.

Altamura Man remains lodged in the earth, and he’s only accessible about 20 minutes through the surface through a system of narrow crevices. But that didn’t stop researcher Jacopo Moggi-Cecchi and his team from snapping photos, videoscope footage, and X-rays in the cave’s silent depths. The team’s new research was published in the journal PLOS earlier this month, and it’s largely focused on the doomed Neanderthal’s teeth.

The research includes a thorough study of the man’s jaw, including his almost complete set of admittedly grimy teeth. According to Moggi-Cecchi, scientists were surprised to find that Altamura Man had been skimping on the primitive White Strips. That is, he had worse-than-usual dental health. “We have a large fossil record of Neanderthals, and it’s not typical,” Moggi-Cecchi told CNN. “In terms of oral health, they were in good shape.” Moggi-Cecchi added that the roots of some of Altamura Man’s teeth were exposed, potentially suggesting gum disease, and some teeth in the lower jaw also had significant plaque deposits.


Finally, Moggi-Cecchi pointed out that, like other Neanderthals, this ancient man’s front teeth are larger than those of modern humans. Listen up, people, because I’m about to rock your world: according to Moggi-Cecchi, early man used those big-ass buck teeth as a “third hand” to hold meat while cutting it. We’ve clearly evolved—I mean, the mere sight of a spork would likely be enough to send Altamura Man into cardiac arrest. But I’m currently picturing Altamura Man using his buck tooth to saw away at a piece of woolly rhinoceros, and I can’t help but ask Mother Nature: why’d you have to go and mess with perfection?