Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 August 2016
“… for I tell thee Sancho, a mouth without teeth is like a mill without a millstone, and a tooth is much more to be prized than a diamond.– Cervantes Don Quixote
So lamented Don Quixote when shepherds bearing slingshots took out several of his “grinders.” He had attacked their flock of sheep, which he mistook for an army (easy mistake). However misguided, the noble knight-errant clearly understood the value of teeth.
To paleoanthropologists, the value of teeth lies in the wealth of information they preserve about our past. Morphological analyses of fossil teeth elucidate biological relationships among species and populations within them. Studies of the chemical composition of enamel and of dental wear inform us about the diets of our ancestors and close relatives. And, investigations of dental growth and development enlighten us about their life history modes. These are some of the more vital contributions of teeth to understanding our evolutionary history. Here, I will synthesize dental insights into human evolution discussed throughout this book and consider what's next for what can be called “dental paleoanthropology,” the subfield of paleoanthropology that makes use of fossil teeth to understand hominin biology. Finally, I will reflect on how an evolutionary perspective on our dental past helps us understand how we view and treat teeth today.
Putting in All Together: The Whole Tooth
If we were to draw up a list of differences between humans and our chimpanzees relatives, that list would include – among other things – our differences in brain size, language ability, ability to adapt to new environments, our reliance on cultural solutions to problems of survival and reproduction, the length of our periods of juvenile growth and dependency, and the length of our lifespans. Fossil teeth give us a record of the origins and evolution of several of these and other unique human attributes.
The origins of human adaptability can be traced back to the teeth of our australopith ancestors. Stable carbon isotope analysis of their dental enamel (Chapter 2) reveals that, unlike modern chimpanzees whose diets even in savanna environments are limited to C3 plants, australopith species were in most cases incorporating both C3 and C4 resources into their diets (83).