Neanderthal humans had no toothpaste. No dental floss or fluoride rinse, either. Still, Rachel Caspari will attest to the quality of Neanderthals’ dental work, which provided her keen insight into the lives of humans who lived nearly 120,000 years ago.
“If you look at fossil humans, you’ll see that they had beautiful teeth,” says Caspari, an anthropology faculty member and expert in human evolution and physical anthropology. “Because they are highly mineralized, teeth essentially are fossils before you die and are godsends to anyone interested in studying the past.”
Her most recent project sampled 768 humans from over a 3-million-year period. She analyzed wear patterns on teeth to categorize their ages. Early humans’ teeth were healthy – dental disease wasn’t problematic until the sugar trade – but they wore down more quickly because of the food people ate. Hence, the more worn the teeth, the longer the person had lived.
Caspari conducted her research in Europe, China, and Australia and found “a five-fold increase in the number of adults with longer life spans,” in the modern humans of the Upper Paleolithic, a period that began about 30,000 years ago. Probable consequences of increased longevity include population expansion, the advent of arts and culture, and grandparents strengthening the family structure.
Now she’s taking this research further.
“The original research looked at how many lived to be old. We’re now looking into how old they got to be,” says Caspari, explaining these results can be tied into areas – such as biology and gerontology – that address the longevity of human life.