Keep this handy fact in your back pocket for the next time someone insults your manners by calling you a Neanderthal: Apparently, our distant relatives used toothpicks or toothpick-like tools to dislodge unsightly food remnants lodged between their teeth after their fancy meals. As Live Science reported, researchers "found traces of wood trapped in fossilized plaque," or dental calculus, on Neanderthal teeth. They probably didn't get there from bark snacks, either.
"The most common ways in which material can enter the mouth and become embedded in dental calculus are: food and drink, inhalation, use of the mouth as a third hand, oral hygiene activities or direct contamination from hand to mouth," reads the study that broke this stereotype-challenging finding. Published in the journal of Antiquity, it looked at the dental calculus on teeth from the 13 skeletons found at the 49,000-year-old cave site in El Sidrón, Spain.
According to the study, the fragments were "non-edible," "un-charred" and coniferous — they didn't appear to be the result of a wood-rich diet. They're most likely debris from early toothpicks, Live Science reported. Or, Neanderthals were chewing on wooden tools ("the mouth-as-third-hand" explanation).
Examining fossilized plaque can tell us a lot about prehistoric diets; it can also help us to dispel some unfair rumors about our surprisingly well-mannered ancestors.