New book looks at the jaw-dropping evolution of our chompers
Your chompers probably seem pretty commonplace. Once adults leave behind the loose teeth and braces of childhood, teeth become another mundane body part. Sure, they need daily care and regular checkups, but teeth don’t really mean much in the grand scheme of things.
Or do they?
For biological anthropologist Tanya M. Smith, teeth are anything but boring. She sees them as time machines, filled with tiny secrets about evolution and history. In “The Tales Teeth Tell,” which is out this week, Smith paints a vivid picture of teeth’s potential. Because of the way they grow, they capture fascinating information about our lives, diet and environment. Trees have rings that capture time; teeth have tiny growth layers that do the same. You can spot traces of stressful life events, such as birth or an illness, in those layers, too.
Smith isn’t into just modern-day molars and incisors. She also studies the fossilized teeth of ancient species. Their longevity isn’t their only upside, although teeth can outlast other remnants of a species. Ancient teeth also tell complex stories because of fossilized dental plaque and food particles, which can help researchers reconstruct long-gone environments and piece together information about animals’ health and behavior.
Smith’s book is more than a dental defense.
She explains how scientists use microscopes, CT scans and other technology to coax information out of teeth, and how they use those facts to piece together evolutionary histories. She touches on the future of tooth-based research, too.
“The Tales Teeth Tell” might make you more impressed by what’s in your mouth -- or put a smile on your face with its weird facts about primate dentistry and the shrinking grins of modern-day humans. The book is written by an academic and has plenty of notes. But it’s accessible to science-minded readers.
Fair warning, however: Some of its details of disease and tooth decay may make you want to develop a better relationship with your dentist.