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Dental Anthropology and Bioarchaeology

Bioarchaeology was a term first defined by Grahme Clark, a British archaeologist in 1972. This field defined the archaeological study of animal bones, similar to zooarchaeology. In 1977, bioarchaeology was redefined by American anthropologist Jane Buikstra. Buikstra’s redefinition refers to the archaeological study of human remains. Health, age, sex, and other identifiable factors can be analyzed from human remains. Bioarchaeology blends multiple disciplines: paleodemography, the demographic study of ancient populations, paleogenetics, the genetics of paleontology, and mortuary studies, the examination and study of deceased remains.

The analyzing of teeth is a sub-field of bioarchaeology, dental anthropology. Teeth can be easy for an anthropologist to identify when most of the rest of the human remains, such as tissue and skin, have decayed. The teeth of human remains can help an anthropologist estimate how old the remains are, the diet that the human ate, give an analysis of overall health, and even possibly tell them about the human’s cultural rituals.

Dental Wear and Diet

Mammals have four main kinds of teeth: incisors, premolars, molars, and canines. Carnivorous animals have long canines that work like scissors to tear meat. Herbivores have large flat molars and premolars with sharp ridges for grinding plants. Omnivores have a variety of teeth that enable them to rip and tear meat as well as break down plants, seeds, and nuts. Cavities in the teeth can confirm a history of a diet high in carbohydrates. Enamel hypoplasis, a defect in the tooth where the enamel is thin, shows that the remains had a history of poor diet or nutrition. Micro-wear on teeth are tiny marks that can only be seen by a microscope. These small scratches can show ways in which the teeth chewed meat, plants, and other foods.

Anthropologists Confirm Link Between Diet and Teeth

Dental Caries Evidence for Dietary Change

Diet and Dental Disease

Teeth and Health

Calculus is a form of hardened dental plaque and one of the most common health problems of the tooth. The plaque growth on the teeth of human remains can be tested to measure its growth over time which can help calculate the age of the remains. Caries, also know as cavities, can occur when acids wear down the enamel of the tooth. Age at death can be estimated from human remains. Since teeth eruption happens within certain age ranges, the number and type of teeth that have erupted can help determine an age at death. For adult remains, comparison of dental wear within the population can help determine age; the more wear in comparison to the rest of the population, the older the remains at the time of death.

Dental Disease

Ancestry and Teeth

Skull shape and dental traits of human remains differs between those of different ancestry. For example, those of European ancestry differ from those of African ancestry. European skulls have a longer narrow face, sloping eye orbits, high nasal openings, and large nasal spine. A skull with a sub-Saharan African ancestry has a smaller nasal spine, rectangular eye orbits, wide nasal chamber, large teeth with wrinkling of molars, and facial prognathism, also known as facial forwardness.

Bones of the Human Skull and Ancestry

Dental Modification

Many ancient and even modern day societies perform dental modification for different cultural purposes and reasons. Any removal or modification of the dental area is classified as dental modification. In modern Western societies, orthodontics is one method of dental modification. In other societies, human remains have shown teeth that were filed down to points. Teeth can also be unintentionally modified by certain habits such as smoking a clay-stemmed pipe or using the teeth as tools in place of scissors or pliers.

Maya Dental Mutilation

The following resources provide more information on the field of bioarchaeology and dental anthropology:


What is Archaeology?

Using Lasers to Check Ancient Teeth for Clues to Human Evolution

About Forensic Anthropology

Bones Don’t Lie – Mortuary Archaeology and Bioarchaeology News

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