Study: Neanderthal teeth provide details on hardships, harsh climate

From lead exposure to extremely cold winters, growing up as a Neanderthal was not easy, according to a study published Oct. 31 in the journal Science Advances.

By studying Neanderthal teeth, researchers gained more detailed insights into what humans’ ancient cousins lived through, including severe climate conditions and the availability of resources. Tooth enamel, according to the study, is laid down in layers, comparable to growth rings in a tree. This forms a record of the climate and chemical exposures encountered by its owner.

The researchers, led by Tanya Smith, Ph.D., a biological anthropologist from Griffith University in Australia, analyzed the teeth of two Neanderthal children who lived about 250,000 years ago in southern France.

Using lasers and polarized light microscope, researchers studied the daily growth lines and chemical traces recorded in the teeth and enamel. What they found was that the Neanderthals nursed their young until they were about 2.5 years old.

Neanderthal children also endured colder winters and more extreme seasonal climates than modern humans. For example, Neanderthal teeth showed more disruption in enamel growth during winters, suggesting they were sicker in that season, according to the study.    

Another surprising finding was that both children were exposed to lead, not once, but twice. Researchers said the Neanderthal children may have consumed lead-rich food or water or inhaled lead-contaminated smoke — two lead mines are located about 25 kilometers from where the Neanderthal remains were located.

Researchers said they hope that further study of the tooth samples can provide more insight on the environments and behaviors of Neanderthals and early humans.

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This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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