As a species, humans have always been fascinated by our ancestry and how we have evolved to where we are today. Dental archaeology and closely related sciences, such as bioarcheology and osteoarchaeology, help us to paint a better picture of our ancestors by studying teeth found during archaeological digs. As we unearth and study the teeth of our ancestors, we begin to unravel the mystery behind who our ancestors really were and how they lived.
Ancient Teeth and Dietary Trends
Teeth excavated from archaeology sites around the world give us some insight into dietary trends of past civilizations. Wear and markings on specific areas of teeth can help us to figure out exactly what a person or population was accustomed to eating when they died. Teeth that show normal wear and markings may indicate a diet predominantly consisting of meat, meaning that those individuals were hunters and gatherers. Caries, or cavities, in specific teeth can show us that agricultural crops had been incorporated into the diet. Research has shown that dental issues became more prevalent as human beings began to farm. These types of discoveries allow us to track the progression of dietary changes and show which regions of the world agricultural trends first emerged in and when. While this information is quite exciting, there are many other facts we can learn about ancient times through archaeology.
- Cavities and Diet (PDF)
- What Fossil Teeth Reveal About Ancestral Human Diets
- Patterns in Dental Health and Disease (PDF)
- Tooth Wear (PDF)
Determining Age by Examining Teeth
A person’s age at the time of their death and genetic information can be identified through studying fossilized teeth and human remains. The size, shape, growth, and placement of teeth within the skull can help scientists to determine a person’s age when they died. Depending on the conditions that excavated teeth are found in, archaeologists specializing in dentistry can determine if a tooth came from a toddler, young child, teenager, or adult. Wear and tear can sometimes even help to determine an adult’s age; a higher prevalence of tooth decay, cavities, and overall wear can give us clues to different stages within adulthood. Along with age and diet, studying teeth through bioarchaeology can also teach us about how people came to be in different areas of the world today.
- Teeth, Age at Death, and Archaeology (PDF)
- Timelines in Teeth
- Tooth Eruption
- Tooth Loss in Adults
- Tooth Eruption Timetable
Genetics and Migration
Modern scientists are able to extract DNA from both teeth and bones long after the rest of the body has decayed. This process can help to identify genetics of specific remains and assist anthropologists with tracing human remains to different areas of the world. If a tooth found in a region where inhabitants were known hunters and gatherers in that era shows signs of a certain type or placement of tooth decay, it can be determined that the human it belonged to may have started to eat plant matter to supplement their diet. This could help to map the beginning of agriculture in that region or indicate overhunting. DNA extracted from an ancient tooth can also help us to trace the migratory paths that our ancestors took thousands of years ago and even show if a population was affected by disease, such as the plague. DNA found in a tooth from an archaeological site can be linked genetically to another person in a different time and place, and this helps us to study immigration patterns and to even find potential ancestors of people alive today.
Relevance of Dental Archaeology Today
Modern advances in dentistry today allow us to keep our teeth healthy and strong. By continuing to study human teeth and remains found during archaeological digs, we can continue to learn more about our past and create better technology for dentistry today and the future. New and exciting information is discovered all the time as more ancient teeth are discovered. From teeth showing signs of ancient dentistry to ancient bridging systems, this type of archaeology has given us plenty of insight into just how big of a role teeth have played throughout human history. As we continue to excavate archaeological sites, we will continue to find and study ancient teeth and learn more about our species each day.