How Human Teeth Help Archaeologists

Scientists and archaeologists know that humans have been on Earth for hundreds of thousands of years. Because there are few traces of the earliest humans, they have relied on fragments of bone and teeth to tell the story. Have you ever wondered how teeth contribute to their knowledge?

“Formula” for Human Teeth Location

Luckily, every mammal has species-specific teeth. Knowing this, scientists developed a formula that easily tells how those teeth are placed in each quadrant of the mouth. Humans have a formula of 2-1-2-3 (adults), which means 2 incisors, then 1 canine, then 2 premolars, then 3 molars in each quadrant. Scientists can rely on this formula because it has remained constant throughout human history.

How Teeth Help Archaeologists

Teeth are superior to bones and skeletons in providing information because:

  • Diet, use, and environment don’t affect teeth much, and the order and structure remain constant over time
  • Bones may change to adapt to conditions, whereas teeth do not
  • Teeth can be preserved when there are little or no bones to be found because dental enamel is the hardest substance in the body, even harder than bone
  • Teeth erupt in a set order; they can be used to determine the age of a particularly “young” specimen.
  • Wear on teeth allows scientists to estimate age of adults.
  • Tartar buildup shows passage of time in adults.

Teeth Can Tell Stories

While the formula for tooth order has remained the same, different populations of humans display differences on the teeth themselves. Differences can include the shape of the incisors and number of grooves on molars, cusps on some teeth, and if the wisdom teeth are present. Once a population with particular characteristics has been identified, their migration path can be followed. Interestingly, the differing characteristics themselves can change over time, but scientists have learned to use those changes to mark time periods to create a history for populations. But there is more information teeth can provide, including:

  • Clues to diet, health, ancestry, and age of individual at death.
  • Wear patterns that can identify foragers (worn teeth) or farmers (softer diets).

The quality and availability of food, and even diseases, during childhood can be revealed in the development of tooth enamel.

What Might Our Teeth Tell Future Scientists?

We take our teeth for granted, and we sometimes neglect to care for them properly or use them as tools to open bottles and hairpins. In some far distant future, a scientist might find one of those damaged teeth and speculate as to what inflicted the injury! However, if a tooth or an implant with a crown is found, they might surmise that this particular individual had access to dental care “ahead of the times.”

We are ready to help you obtain excellent oral health and look forward to seeing you in our office. If you have any dental concerns, or it is time for your dental exam, please contact our office to schedule an appointment. We serve Baldwinsville, New York, and the surrounding area.