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A Paleontologist’s Guide to Dental Analysis

Paleontologists explore the world of ancient history. As plants, animals, and people die, their bodies and structures are left behind. They study fossilized remains and remnants; give them a couple of bones, and they can tell the story of what life was like thousands of years ago. From the toes to the tip of the head, every bone can help us understand more about the life, culture, and people of the past. Originally, bones were used to determine how old a person was, their race, and whether the remains were of a male or a female. Now, with huge advances in technology, including carbon dating, paleontologists can learn a lot more about people from their teeth than just their age and gender. The teeth can reveal anything from a person’s diet, societal diseases, health, demography, and even their relationships.

There is a reason you can enjoy that jar of nuts or rip off a piece of jerky without fear of losing a tooth; your teeth are incredibly hard. The enamel that coats your teeth was formed throughout your childhood and makes your teeth strong and durable. Paleontologists love the enamel of teeth, because of its strength to preserve teeth, even if nature successfully decomposed and destroyed other parts of the body. The enamel protects your teeth along with your history. If you were healthy and well-nourished as an infant and child, then your enamel will have formed properly and will carry on with the same strength throughout your adult life.

Each set of skeletal remains tell a very different story. Whether the remains are from an adult or a child, a paleontologist can determine if the person was malnourished as a child; once enamel is formed it cannot further grow or repair itself. Teeth will also exhibit signs of disease a person experienced during childhood and the impact it had on their overall health. The health of one’s teeth leaves behind clues about what their social status might have been; someone who was malnourished or suffered from disease as a child, typically was of a poorer class. Sadly, malnourished teeth were a common occurrence in the mouths of many ancient skeletons.

Along with health and disease, the teeth leave a trace of culture and the type of food people ate. With a combination of carbon-14 dating and examination of the teeth’s plaque, paleontologists can uncover an animal or human’s diet. A laser is sent across the teeth and releases carbon off the teeth enamel. This carbon tells a story. It pulls fragments of the plants, animals, and food that were eaten. Exploring the different types of food of ancient people, gives paleontologists an idea of the cultural and environmental changes over the life of humans and animals. Some hominids were found to have eaten leaves, plants, bark, fruits, and grasses. The fragments left behind, along with the shapes of their jaws and teeth, give hints of their diets. When you eat meals and snacks throughout the day, plaque begins to build-up on your teeth. Removing it by brushing your teeth will prevent any tooth decay, but any plaque left behind will be traces of the food you ate that day or on other days.

This plaque is found inside the mouths of people from two hundred to five thousand years ago; phytolith is dental plaque that is hardened. Inside this phytolith there are fossilized remains of the plants and foods that were eaten. The actual shapes and condition of the teeth also link to their overall diets. A wider jaw with smoother teeth is used for eating softer grassy foods. For other people who snacked on hard grains and tough foods, their teeth were sanded down and significantly damaged. Traces of dentistry and medical knowledge are also found inside mouths from thousands of years ago. Studying the teeth from the earliest people to more modern times, shows a timeline of human intellectual growth, knowledge, and culture.

Learn more about how Paleontologists use teeth as a way to capture ancient history.

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