Early dentistry in Homo erectus link to prosocial behaviour

Evidence of dental work in fossilised remains of Homo erectus could help tell a story of  empathy, shedding some more light on social structures.

Witwatersand University based Professor Ugo Ripamonti and colleagues at  the University of Cape Town and the SA Nuclear Energy Corporation in Pretoria  base their findings on a lower jaw fragment from Swartkrans in South Africa. Their studies on the fossil suggests that a tooth may have been intentionally extracted leading them to question whether this early dentistry indicates empathy and prosocial behaviour.

According to Prof Ugo Ripamonti: “Evolution of social behaviour in early Homo species is difficult to follow as it must be inferred from examination of archaeological evidence and paleobiological comparisons”.

The team could find no evidence suggesting an accidental  or traumatic expulsion of the tooth. Bone formation within the socket also suggests that the patient was alive after the extraction of the tooth, ruling out loss of the tooth after death.  

Ripamonti says that “it is likely that the individual was aided in the extraction by society members, using an osteodontokeratic tool”.

“The lack of evidence to support traumatic loss or spontaneous shedding of M3 from SK 45, for example due to severe periodontitis, and the presence of a well-defined and outlined socket on μCT scans, provides paleopathological evidence highly suggestive of an intentional extraction thus indicating an early origin of prosocial behaviour to relieve pain in another and indicates a complex societal structure in early Homo erectus”.

Read their full paper here: Link