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Saying a Mouthful: How Our Ancestors Teeth Tell An Evolutionary Story

Anthropologists have learned a great deal about human evolution from fossilized remains, and one of the most information-rich sources are human teeth. Our teeth, as well as our ancestor's teeth, tell a very specific evolutionary story, and it's a story anthropologists have been "reading" for many years. Because teeth are typically the most preserved skeletal remains found in fossils, they are a natural fit for researchers to examine.In her new book, "What Teeth Reveal about Human Evolution," Ohio State University anthropology professor Debbie Guatelli-Steinberg discusses how and why modern human teeth are vastly different from our ancestors. The thread that weaves its way through the entirety of her book is that "we have teeth that were adapted for eating a very different diet than the one we eat today"  and how, as a result, that reality can cause a number of health issues and concerns.



Our diets are drastically different now than they were hundreds of thousands of years ago. Our ancestors primarily consumed food they hunted or gathered themselves. Those food textures, such as meats and fibrous leafy green, were tougher and required more chewing. Today, our diets consist of softer, processed foods, like bread and sugary foods, which our teeth are not adapted for. According to Dr. David Buck, a neuromuscular dentist in Washington state, this dietary shift causes a sort of domino effect on human health, creating a range of health conditions. One of the ways it impacts humans is by affecting our breathing.

"The corrupted diet changes the breathing," Buck said. "It induces mouth-breathing. Our ancestral diet was more hard, textural foods. We now chew a lot softer foods. There’s some implication that changes the muscular adaptation to what we have to chew or the lack of chewing."

Additionally, a westernized diet comprised of mostly soft, processed and sugary foods has given rise to cavities and plaque build-up. Likely not a problem our ancestors faced. Research also shows that "modern humans are much more likely to have misaligned teeth that require orthodontic treatment or surgery." 1

This post-ancestral diet impacts the human jaw. Guatelli-Steinberg explains that "soft diets do not stimulate jaw growth, and teeth, especially our third molars (wisdom teeth), become impacted."1 We simply don’t have enough space for our teeth. But why is that? Buck notes that our jaw structure is substantially different than our ancestors, and that’s quite literally changing the face of modern humans.

"The modern man’s upper jaw is 20 millimeters beyond our ancestors, so we almost universally have a deficient upper jaw," Buck said.  "You see it when you see our ancient relatives. You look at the skulls, and they’re far more broad, horizontally developed faces and forward, and we are far more narrow and vertically long. If you look at ancient skulls, you see a whole different form of the skull. "

But as much as our teeth and jaw structure have changed over time, Buck believes that our genetic code isn’t to blame. He firmly stands behind his belief that outside factors, such as diet and environment, have altered the human mouth in ways that become harmful to our overall health.

"If we go back to our ancestral, tribal population, they’ve discovered that our genetic code has not changed in thousands of years," Buck said. "Our genetic code is essentially the same. If we embrace the epigenetic concept and the concept that we have the same genetic blueprint as our ancestors, why are our faces so different? It’s not a mutative, genetic thing. It’s really an environment-gene influence that’s corrupted the skeletal form to a large extent."

As anthropologists continue to study human teeth in hopes of learning more about our ancestors and the fundamental differences and similarities, new developments and discoveries will arise. But one thing is certain: teeth provide so much information [because] they are available," 1 and that availability gives us a unique lens through which to examine our past and our future.

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