Dental anthropology can be defined as the study of people, and their close relatives, from the evidence provided by teeth. The distinct anatomy of teeth and their resistance to decomposition makes them an invaluable source for anthropological studies and have helped us to gain an understanding of ancient communities.
Dental anthropologists have focused heavily on the variation in size and morphology of teeth, which is primarily determined by genetics. However, teeth also exhibit a strong interface with the environment and changes in pathology, whether intentional or unintentional, can further our understanding of the diet and behaviours of our ancestors. It is fascinating how much information the dentition holds. There is no doubt that dental anthropology is instrumental in allowing us to understand our ancestors and infer details of their lifestyle and behaviours; information which would have otherwise been lost.
This exhibition aims to increase public awareness and interest in dental anthropology and dentistry as a whole. I hope to push the outreach of the wealth of dental anthropology knowledge beyond its experts, making it visually and literarily accessible to a wider audience. Menna Shykhon.
In recent human populations differences in tooth diameters have been demonstrated. Aboriginal Australians have the largest teeth on average, while Europeans and Asians have smaller teeth.
Africans and Australians have been shown to have shorter and broader front teeth and back teeth which are longer and narrower. Europeans have been shown to have narrower front teeth and broader back teeth, whilst Melanasians, Asians and Americans show average values.
Twin studies have demonstrated strong hereditary patterns linked to tooth diameters, with environmental factors such as disease, diet and behaviour also believed to play a role.
Throughout history, the diameter has decreased from early Homo, to Homo erectus, to Neanderthals and finally to modern Homo sapiens. Although there is no single explanation, decreased jaw sizes and functional requirements, due to an increase in tool use and food preparation, is thought to have resulted in this reduction in the size of teeth.
Although tooth decay is affected by many causes, including tooth structure, saliva and oral bacteria, diet (specifically refined carbohydrates), plays a crucial role. Hunter-gatherers consumed minimal simple carbohydrates, resulting in lower tooth decay incidence. However, with increasingly sedentary lifestyles and advances in food preparation, complex carbohydrates were broken down into simple sugars, and therefore tooth decay increased.
In ancient Egypt, the arrival of Greeks during the fourth century BC resulted in dietary changes and a suggested increase in decay by 25% compared to the Pharaonic period (3000-322 BC). This can be attributed to foods such as white bread, honey and dates becoming more readily available, an increase in fermentable carbohydrates, as well as a decrease in fibrous, abrasive foods which previously prevented plaque build up on tooth surfaces. Interestingly, caries was more prevalent in upper classes of society due to the nature of their diet, contrary to what we see in modern western society. In European populations, caries rates have seen a gradual increase from Palaeolithic times to the Bronze and Iron ages, with a rapid increase through Medieval and modern times.
Tooth wear is the loss of enamel and dentine due to tooth-to-tooth contact or foreign bodies. Estimating age at the time of death by examining the extent of tooth wear is widely used due to the association with biological ageing. The level of wear can help us to understand the dietary patterns of our ancestors and to differentiate between a hunter-gatherer and an agriculturist diet which consists primarily of softer plant foods. Studies of ancient Egyptian skulls showed widespread excessive tooth wear. Tooth wear increased with age and was often so extensive that it resulted in the teeth dying off and dental infections.
Coarse, fibrous diets combined with the introduction of abrasive inorganic particles into foods resulted in such extensive wear. Contamination was primarily due to sand blown in from the desert, as well as harvesting and preparation tools. Tooth wear decreased later on in Egyptian history due to improvements in diet and advances in food processing.
Enamel hypoplasia is a defect in enamel structure and has been used by anthropologists as a stress marker, giving an indication of malnutrition and stress within a population.
In populations in the Nile valley between 13000-1500 BC, agricultural communities linked with ill health and unreliable food supplies, showed the highest incidence of hypoplasia. Over time, an improvement in agriculture and enhanced trade is thought to have resulted in improved health and thus a reduction in hypoplasia.
Similarly, an archaeological site in Illinois (950-1300 AD) showed an increase in hypoplasia incidence thought to be a result of an increasing population density and a greater reliance on maize agriculture . Former populations from what is now Ohio, showed higher levels of enamel hypoplasia in the agricultural period in comparison to the hunting period.
Intentional modification to the human dentition holds significant anthropological and social importance. It allows us to gain an understanding into cultural and aesthetic practices of a time. These modifications can represent belonging to a tribe, high status and beauty, and can range from filing, sharpening, inlays, and piercing, amongst others.
Modifications are generally localised to the six front upper teeth and rarely occur on molar teeth, with a higher prevalence in Sub-Saharan Africa and Mesoamerica.
On exhibition you will also find artwork produced by Rachel Jackson, a dental student at the University of Aberdeen, with a previous degree in medical illustration. You can find out more about her work here: