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OSU Anthropologist Reveals the Secrets of Teeth

You can learn a lot about a person from their teeth. Even if they died a thousand years ago. That’s what OSU anthropologist Debbie Guatelli-Steinberg details in her book What Teeth Tell Us about Human Evolution. In this book, she looks at some of the insights she’s gained in her career of looking at the teeth of our ancestors.

The Most Reliable Record

Teeth are a really important resource to help us understand the past lives of humans, including both prehistoric humans and more recent predecessors. That’s because teeth are the most commonly preserved remains.

Teeth get preserved so well because they are the most mineralized tissues in our body. Tooth enamel is 96% mineral, which means that it’s highly resistant to the types of decay that remove the rest of our bodies. Even bones are only 70% mineral, so they decompose under many conditions that don’t damage our teeth.

As a result, many of our ancestors are known only by their teeth. For example, we know that at one species of humans existed for thousands of years, but the only remains we have of them are two teeth and one finger bone. Another species of humans is known from a few skull fragments and nine teeth from four individuals. Not much to go on, to be sure, but if you learn to read the teeth, you can gain a lot of vital information.

What We Can Learn from Teeth

So if you can read the teeth, what can you learn about the people that used to live on this earth? One of the key discoveries made by Dr. Guatelli-Steinberg is that their lives may not have been as hard as we once thought. She looked at cross-sections of the teeth of Neanderthals and compared them to the teeth of modern Inuit. She found that the two populations had comparable levels of hardship during their developmental years.

However, she also found that the developmental years were shorter for our ancestors. She found that permanent molars started emerging for our ancestors at the age of 3 ½, compared to age 6 for modern humans.

She also talks about how our modern diet has affected the development of our jaws. For most of human history, people have eaten a coarse diet that stimulate the growth of muscles and the development of the jaws. This led to larger jaws that had plenty of room for all our teeth. Today, we eat much softer diets, so the jaws aren’t stimulated to grow enough. This leads to problems like crooked teeth, but also many of the developmental problems that we combat with Healthy Start Orthodontics, including sleep problems like snoring and bedwetting.

And don’t get us started on the damage done by sugar! For most of our history, sugar was a rare resource, and people had little access to it. This meant low levels of decay. But with the industrial age, we have learned to process sugars and now everyone has access to so much sugar that nearly all American adults develop cavities at some point in their lives.

Preserve Your Teeth for Posterity

What will future generations conclude about our teeth? It’s hard to say, but they won’t be able to conclude much of anything if we lose all our teeth to gum disease and decay.

If you are looking for a Columbus dentist who can help you preserve your teeth for posterity (or just for a lifetime), please call (614) 848-5001 today for an appointment with Dr. Mike Firouzian at the Center for Family & Cosmetic Dentistry.