Earliest evidence of dentistry in Late Upper Palaeolithic

Stone tools used to treat dental caries 14,000 years ago

Humans have been practising dentistry for a surprisingly long time. The earliest dental filling, made from beeswax and dating to 6,500 years ago, was reported from Slovenia in 2012 and a bow drill was apparently used to remove decay from molar teeth recovered from a 9,000-year-old Neolithic graveyard in Pakistan. The increase in carbohydrate consumption in the Neolithic was accompanied by an increase in dental caries, and a need for dentistry. The drilling, cleaning and filling dental cavities is documented in ancient Egyptian texts, which confirm that the practice was established by at least the fifth millennium BC.

Evidence of a much earlier origin for the treatment of dental caries has now emerged from Epigravettian site of Riparo Villabruna in northern Italy. Researchers studied a lower right third molar from a 25-year-old male, originally recovered in 1988 and radiocarbon dated to around 14,000 years ago. They noticed a dental cavity that had apparently been cleaned and on investigating with an electron microscope they found V-shaped striations that appeared to have been caused by scraping.

The researchers then attempted to replicate the striations on recently-extracted third molars, using pointed tools made from wood, bone and microlith. The use of such tools as toothpicks is well documented from the Palaeolithic. It was found that the microlith tool produced grooves and ridges matching those found on the Villabruna tooth, which thus provides the earliest known example of dental surgery. The cavity had been dug with a flint microlith to remove the dental decay and presumably relieve toothache.

The Villabruna specimen suggests that there was at least some knowledge of dental disease treatment well before the Neolithic. This study suggests that early forms of carious treatment entailed an adaptation of a toothpick to lever and scratch out decay rather than the drilling practices of later times.

Oxilia, G. et al., Earliest evidence of dental caries manipulation in the Late Upper Palaeolithic. Scientific Reports (2015).



Neanderthals coexisted with modern humans for up to 5,000 years

New radiocarbon dates point to longer coexistence but earlier extinction

A new study published in the journal Nature suggests that Neanderthals persisted alongside modern humans in Europe for as long as 5,000 years after the arrival of the latter. A team lead by Tom Higham at Oxford obtained 196 AMS radiocarbon dates from 40 sites across Europe, relying on improved techniques to remove young carbon contamination. The results also indicate that the Neanderthals were probably extinct no later than 41,000 to 39,000 years ago.

Although it was once believed that Neanderthals and modern humans had coexisted for up to 10,000 years, work in the middle of the last decade suggested that the overlap was very brief.  The new results represent a reversion to the earlier position, albeit pushed further back in time since it is now believed that modern humans first reached Europe about 46,000 years ago (Higham’s team suggest the date was around 45,000 years ago).

The new dates may resolve long-running controversy over the Châtelperronian culture, with is believed to be of Neanderthal origin but incorporates elements associated with modern human behaviour. The dates indicate that the Châtelperronian began around 45,000 years ago, suggesting that it was influenced by interaction with modern humans. The Châtelperronian comes to an end at about the same time as the Mousterian, about 41,000 to 39,000 years ago
The researchers were unfortunately unable to obtain any dates for remains from Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar, where Neanderthal survival after 30,000 years ago has been claimed.

The lengthy overlap rules out the in any case improbable hypothesis that modern humans hunted down and exterminated the Neanderthals. It is more likely that a combination of increased competition for limited resources and the Heinrich Event 4 climatic downturn 40,000 years ago was responsible.

Higham, T. et al., The timing and spatiotemporal patterning of Neanderthal disappearance. Nature 512, 306-309 (2014).

The Venus of Willendorf

The Venus of Willendorf is a small 11.1 cm (4 3/8 in) high figurine carved from oolitic limestone and tinted with red ochre.

The 25,000-year-old figurine dates to the Gravettian period and is one of the most iconic artefacts of the European Upper Palaeolithic. It was discovered in 1908 by archaeologist Josef Szombathy near the village of Willendorf in Austria, and since then it has resided in the Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna. It is currently on display in the Mineralogy galleries, having been relocated there while the Prehistory galleries undergo refurbishment. I took the photographs of the front, side and rear views when I visited the museum during a recent trip to Vienna. From a personal point of view, the enigmatic figurine did much to spark my interest in prehistory, so I was very keen to see it in person for the first time.

With its large breasts, full figure and exaggerated sexual characteristics, the contrast between the Venus of Willendorf and the classical portrayal of the Roman goddess could not be greater. Yet there is nothing crude or primitive about its execution; it is immediately obvious that the figurine is as finely-worked as anything from classical times.

The face is concealed behind rows of plaited hair, which comprise seven concentric bands surrounding the head, with two more semi-circular bands below at the back of the neck. Another interpretation is that the figurine is wearing a woven fibre hat.
Female figurines with similar attributes are known dating to throughout the European Upper Palaeolithic, though most are from the Gravettian period. Despite its obvious inaccuracy, the term ‘Venus figurines’ has been used to describe them since the first examples were found in the nineteenth century. They are often interpreted as fertility figures or mother goddesses, although their real function remains unknown.

The enigmatic "Venus" figurines of Upper Palaeolithic Europe

Female carvings are known throughout the European Upper Palaeolithic and are collectively known as Venus figurines, though they predate the Roman goddess by tens of millennia. They are chiefly associated with the Gravettian period, though they are also known from the preceding Aurignacian. The earliest currently known is the 35,000 year old Hohle Fels Venus, a mammoth-ivory figurine recovered in 2008 at Fohle Fels Cave in the Swabian Jura of south-western Germany (Conard, 2009).

Typically lozenge-shaped, these figurines are characterised by exaggerated sexual characteristics, with very large breasts, accentuated hips, thighs and buttocks, and large, explicit vulvas. Other anatomical details tend to be neglected; especially arms and feet, and the heads generally lack facial detail. The contrast with the classical portrayal of Venus could not be greater. The figurines are carved from materials including mammoth ivory, serpentine, steatite or limestone and are often coloured with ochre. Others are made from fired clay, making them among the earliest known ceramics (Vandiver, Soffer, Klima, & Svoboda, 1989). Many have engraved or incised patterns, which may represent hair and clothing.

Left. The Willendorf Venus (left) is carved from limestone and tinted with red ochre. It was discovered in 1908 near Willendorf, Austria and now resides in the Museum of Natural History, Vienna.

Centre. The ivory Lespugue Venus (centre) was discovered in 1922 at the Rideaux cave of Lespugue (Haute-Garonne) in the foothills of the Pyrenees, and is now displayed in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

Right. The ceramic Dolní Věstonice Venus (right) was discovered in 1925 in Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic). It is not currently on permanent display to the public.

The figurines are between 22,000 to 29,000 years old.

Since the first examples were discovered in the 19th Century, many have attained iconic status. These include the Venus of Willendorf, which is 11.1cm (4 3/8 in) high and carved from oolitic limestone. The statue was discovered in 1908 by archaeologist Josef Szombathy near the village of Willendorf in Austria, which is associated with the Gravettian period and now resides in the Natural History Museum Vienna.

The figurines are often interpreted as fertility figures, mother goddesses etc, but their real function is unknown. One novel suggestion, by anthropologists Leroy McDermott and Catherine Hodge McCoid, is that they may be self-portrayals of pregnant women. They note likenesses between a photograph of a “Venus” figurine viewed from above and one of a pregnant woman standing with her feet together, viewed from her own perspective looking down on her breasts and abdomen The theory has met with a certain amount of scepticism, but McDermott and McCoid argue that it provides a parsimonious explanation for the features found in representations of the female form from the Upper Palaeolithic (McDermott, 1996; McCoid & McDermott, 1996).