What Our Teeth Tell Us About Ourselves

When archaeologists recover fossils from the Earth, there is frequently a conundrum regarding making sense of what the bones actually mean. It is very rare to find an intact piece of bone, much less a whole skeleton. Which bone is it? Where does it go? And of course, what kind of life did this animal live? Was it a mammal or a lizard, was it a meat or plant eater, and how did it live exactly? These questions can frequently be answered from the teeth.

human dentition

Carnivore vs. Herbivore Teeth

One of the first things that you can immediately tell by looking at some fossilized teeth is what kind of diet the animal had, and how big the head was. From there you can guess how big the rest of the animal is, or at least a general ballpark; soft tissues may leave no traces of itself once it has decomposed, and may constitute a significant portion of the bulk of an animal.

Carnivores, of which only two families are left today (dogs and cats, the true carnivores, and their wild counterparts; jackals, hyenas, wolves on one hand (which can be taught to eat vegetables and grain, but fare much worse on it), and tigers, ocelots, lynx, lions, leopards, panthers, pumas and bobcats on the other hand, which are true carnivores and cannot survive without bloodshed), have very specific dentition. Their dentition needs to be strong, and the teeth need to be sharp. Canines are elongated, sometimes to the extreme (just think of saber toothed tigers), and incisors are sharp and pointy, necessary for tearing off big chunks of flesh. Another adaptation is the carnassial teeth that are sheared, and of which some version or other is present in nearly all carnivores, as well as the enlarged temporalis muscle, which is necessary so that the animal can deliver a bigger bite, and can latch on to prey.

Herbivores on the other hand are typified by the lack of these things, as herbivores do not need specialized teeth like carnivores to survive. The “prey” of a herbivore does not move anywhere ands thus does not require pointy teeth, or large jaw muscles, and the lack of these is thought to be indicative of a herbivorous diet. Flat, rounded teeth are also typical of a herbivore. Plant eaters also typically have lots of molars.

Omnivores: The Human Dentition

Let us now look at human dentition. The teeth of humans is a clear example of hybrid teeth, reflecting the fact that we are omnivores, and thus have a choice of where we get our nutrition from. We have lots of molars, and flat teeth like herbivores, and we also have canines, albeit much smaller ones than normal. Basically, human teeth are not specialized enough to be considered carnivore teeth, but are more specialized than a true herbivores.

Implications

The only reason I bring this up is because the internet is full of all kinds of mystical musings and totally ungrounded “facts” about how our teeth tell us what we are supposed to and not supposed to eat. Specifically eating meat is usually praised because we have “carnivore teeth”, and thus we are “intended” to eat meat. This is erroneous for two reasons; we do not have carnivore teeth (just try and eat a steak without a knife and fork, or without cooking it first), and we are not “meant” to eat anything. We can survive on plant stuff and animal stuff as well, if we choose; but both kinds of food can sustain us, and the choice needs to be made on different grounds, and not based on teeth.

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