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Posted on October 30, 2018
It’s almost Halloween and my four-year-old is suddenly obsessed with all things skeleton. He especially loves spooky skulls, and since he knows Momma and Dada clean teeth for a living, he really likes looking at the teeth in those skulls. Which got me thinking: how much can we tell about a person by their teeth? Quite a bit, it turns out!
Forensic anthropologists have been able to suss out some very interesting information about the lives of our ancient ancestors from the damage on their teeth. The skulls of many Neolithic peoples show scratches on the teeth which suggest they used sharp sticks similar to tooth picks, which were probably primitive efforts for dental hygiene, or even attempts to relieve the pain from cavities. In more recent history such as one case from the 17th century, we see notable wear from habits such as smoking a clay pipe, which wore away a giant circular gap across several of a man’s front teeth. Likewise, diets which included very hard seeds and tubers or vegetables with grit or sand still on them would wear down the back teeth significantly.
One thing I found especially interesting is that ancient skulls show a ton of tooth decay! That’s right, our ancestors got cavities even without soda or candy. Likely they were eating diets high in plants (fruits, berries, etc.) with a lot of fermentable sugars, which breaks down to a similar acid exposure as our modern diets. However, what they did about those cavities was really interesting. There is some evidence to suggest that small, sharpened stones were used to “drill” out the cavities, and then the tooth was packed with tar! Makes you feel a bit better about what we do now, right?
Even today, your dental team can actually tell a lot about your habits just by looking at your teeth. We can usually guess what sorts of stain-inducing habits you practice based on the location and color of your stains. Likewise, what type of plaque you develop can usually give us a good idea whether or not you enjoy a diet high in starches like rice, pasta, and bread. Remember that clay pipe case? I’ve seen plenty of similar cases where people hold straight pins in their teeth while sewing and wear little round grooves in their front teeth. We’ve had a few strange cases of people chewing on bottle caps, too, which left long silver stains almost like scratches on their teeth.
One of the most clear-cut habits we can tell just by looking at your teeth and surrounding tissues is whether or not you grind your teeth. Flattened chewing surfaces on the molars, shortened front teeth, scalloped edges on your tongue, rough or bitten skin in your cheeks, and large bony protrusions on the floor of your mouth are all indications of grinding. Add recession and wear patterns on the roots of the teeth (abfraction), and we can usually be pretty close to certain (https://www.lakebaldwindental.com/blog/2016-11-08-election-day-special-s…). I even had an instructor in dental hygiene school who could usually tell which side you slept on based on how your teeth were worn down!
Humans throughout history have suffered with pretty much the same types of tooth problems: decay, fracture, bone loss from periodontal disease, infections, tartar, and general wear and tear. The good thing is that you have the team at Lake Baldwin Dental to help keep you from looking like a caveman. Keep smiling, and be happy we have toothbrushes now, Orlando!
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