Dental hygiene as old as Neanderthals

Sept. 1, 2011
This month I’ll continue to veer to public health in general, because it is important for dental hygienists to understand the evolution of public health ...

by Christine Nathe, RDH, MS
[email protected]

This month I’ll continue to veer to public health in general, because it is important for dental hygienists to understand the evolution of public health when dealing with dental public health issues. In the chapter reading by Pickett and Hanlon I discussed last month that described the historical evolution of public health, I found two other concepts unique to dental hygiene that I thought would interest other dental hygienists.

Public health preventive measures have been seen in tribal customs of primitive societies. These measures were probably developed to serve as survival mechanisms, and included hygiene and cleanliness customs.1 This is interesting to dental hygienists, and we hope that the current population feels the same way about hygiene and cleanliness of the oral cavity.

A few years ago it was reported that two molar teeth of a Neanderthal were found to have grooves formed by the passage of a pointed object, which suggests the use of a small stick for cleaning the mouth.2 Hopefully this shows that it is inherent in human nature to want to have clean teeth. At least, as dental hygienists, we can hope this is true.

Additionally, this chapter described the works of several public health pioneers such as Edwin Chadwick from England and Lemuel Shattuck from the U.S. The chapter compared the contributions of both, and included Chadwick’s work publicizing the true cost of "working class" children (child labor) in England, which included disturbing mortality and morbidity rates. Chadwick used vivid descriptions to explain this appalling issue.

Shattuck’s contribution consisted of a well-researched report of present and future public health needs of the nation. This report remained nearly unnoticed for years and its recommendations were ignored. This was particularly interesting since the authors stated that this report, if published today, would still be ahead of its time in many respects.

Chadwick’s report helped get results, but at the time Shattuck’s report was not as effective. As a dental hygienist, it is important to collect data and publish reports, but it is equally important to get the message out to people, who may want to make changes for the betterment of their oral health. Promotion is needed even when scientific evidence exists. When trying to make changes to advance the profession, make sure reports are available, but also try to promote the findings in such a way that changes are adopted.

Dental hygienists have lots of practice changing behaviors on a patient-to-patient basis, but on a larger scale, when we see the need to make changes in dental care, we need to translate our skills to make information and ideas available to the public in order to ultimately improve dental care delivery for the betterment of society.

Columnist’s note: A special thank you to Frankie Perry, UNM Public Health Faculty, for assigning this reading and the discussion that followed in class.


  1. Pickett G, Hanlon JJ. (1990). Historical Perspectives: In Public Health and Administration, pp.21-46. St Louis: Times Mirror/Mosby College Publications.
  2. us-spain-neanderthal-odd-idUSGOR25178120070912

Christine Nathe, RDH, MS, is a professor and graduate program director at the University of New Mexico, Division of Dental Hygiene, in Albuquerque, N.M. She is also the author of "Dental Public Health Research" (, which is in its third edition with Pearson. She can be reached at [email protected] or (505) 272-8147.

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