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Rye Smiles for Life
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A Guide to Dental and Bioarchaeology

Exploring history and human ancestry is a popular pursuit for many. Dental archaeology, bioarcheology, and osteoarchaeology are three sciences that make it possible to explore human ancestors through the study of teeth discovered in archaeological digs. Finding and studying teeth can provide fascinating clues about the past. Little by little, we can learn about our ancestors, including how they looked and how they lived.

Determining Diet and Health

It’s possible to learn about the dietary trends of ancient civilizations by the teeth excavated from archaeology digs. Mammals, including humans, have incisors, premolars, molars, and canine teeth, which enable ripping, tearing, and grinding of both meat and plant material. Studying teeth, including the wear and markings in specific areas, provides important clues about what people ate during their lives. Hunters and gatherers that ate a diet with meat would have teeth with normal wear and markings. People who grew agricultural crops and ate them would have teeth with cavities, as research has shown that people began developing dental issues as they began farming and eating the crops they grew. Teeth that show areas where the enamel wore thin indicate people who had a poor diet. It’s possible to track the progression of dietary changes and how they have affected dental health by examining teeth.

Determining Age Through Examining Teeth

Studying fossilized teeth and other human remains makes it possible to determine the age of a person at death as well as other information. Scientists can explore the teeth within the skull, noting their placement, size, shape, and growth, to discern the person’s age at death. It’s also possible to determine whether a tooth belonged to a toddler, child, teenager, or adult depending on its condition. Hardened dental plaque, also known as calculus, is a common dental issue. Measuring the amount of calculus on teeth is one way to determine the age of a person at death. For children, noting the number of teeth and the type of teeth is an indicator of age. Scientists also note wear and tear of teeth to zero in on an adult’s age; teeth with more decay and wear usually belong to older adults. Studying teeth through bioarchaeology also provides important clues about how and why people began living in specific areas of the world.

Determining Genetics

Scientists have developed processes to extract DNA from teeth and bones, even after the rest of the remains have decomposed. Through this process, it’s possible to identify the genetic makeup of the remains, which enables anthropologists to trace human remains as people migrated all over the world. A tooth discovered in an area where hunters and gatherers lived that exhibits specific wear patterns or decay can be a clue about people of that era starting to incorporate agriculture into their society. It’s also possible to explore dental traits to determine ancestry. Different ancestries can have different characteristics in the size and shape of teeth and skull appearance.

Determining Migration and Location

Extracted DNA from teeth can be helpful for tracing migratory paths that people followed many years ago. DNA can also provide clues about populations that were decimated by disease. Tooth DNA can be a genetic link between people from different times and places, making it possible to discover immigration patterns. Human remains have provided scientists with important clues about population dynamics that existed thousands of years ago, including migration patterns that may have been impacted by climatic shifts and other historic trends. People alive today might even be able to use dental DNA to explore their ancestry.

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(703) 565-2503