Dental Archeology

When dealing with human remains, dating them is a big issue and a big problem for anthropologists. There are several methods you can use though. You can use radiocarbon dating in the bones, but this can be tricky, as depending on what the person ate, the carbon in the bones can come back too old. You can date the artifacts in the tomb or on the person, and this is a more accurate way to date. You can also look at the teeth.

Time measured in teeth

Agriculture, along with the hundreds of positive things it brought with it, also brought some negative things as well. Sedentary people live longer, have older bones, and worse teeth; this is because carbs usually come from plant matter, something that is only eaten occasionally by hunter gatherers. So the better the teeth, the less microbes and caries can be seen, the older the teeth. This is a pretty good way to determine what stage of development the human was in when they died, which given the territory the body is found in, can help us date the body. For instance, if there have been sedentary people in the area for 5 000 years, and we find a body with perfect teeth with a lot of front wear but no carries, it is likely that that individual was from a time before that.

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Tooth pulp

Aside from the condition the teeth are in, the insides of teeth contain tooth pulp. If the teeth are left relatively intact you may even find some bits and pieces of mitochondrial DNA, which can help you date the subject. Teeth also contain carbons and other materials that can be used to help date them.

What teeth tell us

Aside from when they were used, teeth also tell us a good deal about who was using them. The diet, habitation and place in the social hierarchy can often (but not always) be guessed at from teeth. Different cultures at different times ate different things and had some form of oral hygiene habits, and these are visible on the teeth. Carbohydrates and a lack of oral hygiene methods will have specific patterns of decay on the teeth, and these frequently indicate low economic status in a sedentary society; these are the teeth that archeologists of the future are most likely to exhume out of our graves, for example. Certain foods have typical wear patterns, as do certain cleaning patterns. Oral diseases like periodontitis and others can also leave typical damage patterns on the jawbones as well, which can tell us a lot about the oral environment, even if there are no teeth left. Missing teeth also speak volumes, especially in an otherwise intact skull; it usually indicates quite severe dental problems, and can also be an indicator of old age, something that has only recently become common.

Used in conjunction with where they were found and in what kind of tomb or lack thereof, teeth are one of the most important helpers from whom we can find out information about the person they belonged to.

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