One of the mysteries that scientists have been trying to track down about our teeth is why they’re so small. Compared to our primate relatives, and even some of our closely related ancestors, our teeth are much smaller. And there’s one set of teeth, our wisdom teeth, that are growing smaller and smaller, and don’t appear at all for some people.
In the past, people thought that this might be related to the advent of cooking, which allowed us to essentially predigest our food, making it softer, and therefore not requiring large teeth for vigorous chewing. Now, though, it seems that the process began even earlier, with the advent of tools.
Discovering Rules of Teeth
Researchers at Arizona State University made this discovery by looking at the relative sizes of teeth in more modern hominins and those of the older branches of the human family tree. They discovered that for australopiths, the first humanoids to walk on two legs, closely related to the fossil “Lucy,” teeth tended to get larger and larger toward the back of the mouth. This gave them huge chewing surfaces on these back teeth, double the size of modern human teeth. But for more advanced humans, teeth in the back tended to get smaller, with Homo sapiens providing the extreme case.
Using this analysis, researchers suggested that Homo habilis, the earliest member of the Homo genus, should actually be considered an australopithecine, because its teeth followed the more primitive pattern.
Researchers speculated that the shrinking teeth are due to the advent of tool use, which allowed them to perform many food tasks that in the past would have required teeth. For example, cutting food into smaller pieces with a knife, meant that it had to be chewed up much less. The same was true of grinding seeds or grasses. Instead of sitting around all day chewing like our primate ancestors did (and modern relatives do today), we did much less chewing.
Don’t Treat Teeth as Tools
With this discovery, it’s a good time to note that tools and teeth are essentially very different things. Especially today, tools are designed to be much tougher than teeth, So it’s important not to try to use your teeth as tools, such as scissors, icebreakers, nutcrackers, or bottle openers. Doing so can damage your teeth, and can be even harder on dental restorations. Instead, find the right tool for the job and avoid chipping or cracking your teeth.
But if you did chip, crack, or otherwise damage your teeth and are looking for a dentist in Wilmington, NC to perform reconstructive dentistry, please call 910-392-6060 for an appointment at Kuzma Advanced Dentistry.