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Human Teeth

I still remember my first osteology lesson on human teeth at university. I thought looking at and handling teeth was really good, and I guess this was because you can see them. Unlike bones, which are buried under skin, muscles and other soft bits you see teeth everyday – when someone talks, smiles or when you brush your teeth. I think this is why I found it quite a strange lesson handling and learning about teeth.  However, once I got over that teeth are pretty amazing things. They can provide age estimates for individuals and provide information about an individual’s diet. Therefore, I think they are important when talking about the human skull.


A child's skull before all of the deciduous teeth are lost.

A child’s skull before all of the deciduous teeth are lost.

You are born with all your teeth embedded in the jaw and the ‘milk’ or deciduous start to come through at a young age, with permanent teeth erupting from the age of about 6. The teeth do not erupt all at once but over a period of time; and this is one of the ways that they can be used for aging an individual. Papers have been published to provide an age estimate (Moorrees et al. 1963 see recommended reading). These estimates work for both the deciduous and permanent teeth however once all of the teeth are fully erupted this method can no longer be used. After this point an age estimate can be obtained by the degree of wear and attrition seen on the teeth (Brothwell 1981).  

 As mentioned as well as aging the dietary and weaning patterns of an individual may be assessed by looking at the teeth. This is done through stable isotope analysis. Now I am not an expert in this area but have found a good explanation and review of the process in Katzenberg & Saunders’s book. By examining the distribution of particular isotopes can give an indication of diet. This can be done for both bone collagen and tooth enamel however, as enamel does not remodel like bone the dietary patterns of early childhood can be examined quite accurately. This enables not only infants to be studied but also adult skeletons which can be compared to the isotopes found in their bones to give an overall picture of their diet. An addition to this is observing the change in isotopes in the different teeth of an individual. As the teeth develop in a sequence a good idea of weaning patterns can be assessed, including when the infant was weaned. By bringing all of these elements together a picture of individual and population health can be examined. To further this the chemical composition could be compared between high and low ranking individuals to establish whether differences existed, providing an indication of social structure.


 Recommended Reading/Resources

Ambrose, S. H., J. Buikstra, et al. (2003). ‘Status and gender differences in diet at Mound 72, Cahokia, revealed by isotopic analysis of bone’ in Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 22(3): 217-226.

Ambrose, S. H. and J. Krigbaum (2003). ‘Bone chemistry and bioarchaeology’ in Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 22(3): 193-199.

 Brothwell, D. R. (1981) Digging up Bones 3rd edition, New York, Cornell University Press.

Katzenberg, M. A. & Saunders, S. R. (2008) Biological Anthropology of the Human Skeleton, 2nd edition, New York, Wiley-Liss.

Moorrees, C., Fanning, E. & Hunt, E. (1963a) ‘Age Variation of Formation Stages for Ten Permanent Teeth’ in Journal of Dental Research 42: 1490-1502

Moorrees, C., Fanning, E. & Hunt, E. (1963b) ‘Formation and Resorption of Three Deciduous Teeth in Children’ in American Journal of Physical Anthropology 21: 205-213

Smith, B. H. (1991) ‘Standards of Human Tooth Formation and Dental Age Assessment’ in Kelley, M. A. & Larsen, C. S. (eds.) Advances in Dental Anthropology Wiley-Liss Inc: New York

Wright, L. E. and H. P. Schwarcz (1999). ‘Correspondence Between Stable Carbon, Oxygen and Nitrogen Isotopes in Human Tooth Enamel and Dentine: Infant Diets at Kaminaljuyú’ in Journal of Archaeological Science 26(9): 1159-1170.



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