Just as humans haven’t looked the same throughout our evolutionary history, our teeth haven’t, either. Debbie Guatelli-Steinberg, a professor of anthropology at The Ohio State University, recently came out with a book that tackles the trajectory of human evolution in terms of our teeth. Her findings don’t just tell us about what our teeth used to be like — they also tell us a lot about what our teeth are like today, and how we need to properly care for them.
The History of Our Teeth
Teeth are a unique asset in the study of early humans, because they’re some of the most preserved remains that are found in fossils. Due to their small size and high level of mineralization, they resist decomposition well, making them easy to study.
Researchers study all kinds of features of teeth, from their size and shape to the bumps and grooves on their surfaces, and even the amount and type of wear the teeth experienced while their owner was alive.
Studies of the microscopic wear that teeth have sustained, tartar on the teeth, and the actual chemical composition of the teeth, can tell researchers about that individual’s diet. One thing that Guatelli-Steinberg points out is that for the vast majority of human evolutionary history, we were hunter-gatherers, doing minimal food preparation. Obviously, that’s very different from how our diets are composed today.
What This Tells Us About Our Oral Health
While it may not feel this way to us, we haven’t actually been out of the hunter-gatherer phase for very long — at least, not in the grand scheme of evolution. This means that while our soft, processed, high-sugar diets may seem normal to us, our teeth aren’t yet adapted to them. Nor have our bodies adapted, either. We crave sweets in part because they were associated with nutritive fruits, not sodas and candy.
This means that we get cavities and experience plaque buildup much more quickly and frequently than our ancestors would’ve. Plus, our soft diets don’t stimulate jaw growth, which results in our teeth having a higher tendency to be misaligned, or become impacted, like many wisdom teeth do.
Unfortunately, evolution can’t be rushed, so until our teeth catch up, it’s important that we do the legwork of practicing good oral hygiene to protect our teeth from these “new” threats.
The best way to prevent plaque buildup and cavities is to brush and floss regularly, but even that isn’t enough to completely protect your oral health: You need to also make sure to visit your dentist consistently for cleanings and checkups.
You can also help your teeth resist damage by sticking to a tooth-friendly diet. Eliminating or reducing sugar and soda in your diet can make a big difference for your teeth, as well as other whole-body health benefits.
That tendency that our teeth have to get out of place? Don’t worry, a dentist can fix that, too. Orthodontics like our Six Month Smiles can move teeth back into their proper place and keep your smile straight, beautiful, and functional.