The Evolution of Teeth

The Evolution of Teeth: How Smarts & Skills Changed the Human Mouth

Our teeth are one of the most important parts of our bodies. Think for a moment about just some of the ways you have used your teeth today. From eating breakfast to helping form the words we speak, teeth are undeniably at the center of our lives (and skulls). But how did our teeth come to be so well-suited to our lives? Read below for an overview of the history of the teeth—you just might find yourself inspired to earn a dental degree.

The Shape of the Matter

Over the course of the last few thousand years, the human jaw has changed shape dramatically. One of the broadest trends has been a steady decline in the size of the jaw. From around 35,000 years ago to about 10,000 years ago human jaws and teeth decreased in size by about one percent every 2,000 years. For the last ten thousand years, that pace has increased to roughly one percent every 1,000 years. In pace with our shrinking teeth and jaw, the structure of human teeth has changed as well, as thickening enamel and adaptations in technology have cut back our reliance on strong, well-ordered teeth.

Cooking has had one of the largest effects on the development of human dentition. In the distant past, when much of our diet was raw fruits and vegetables, we needed strong and straight teeth. These helped us push our way through the tough, large particles that made up our diet. Cooking has reduced our need for this ability dramatically. At its simplest, the primary goal in cooking food is to break down tough fibers in meats and vegetables, rendering our meals proportionally easier to digest. As a result, the evolutionary pressure to keep our teeth well-ordered has dropped away.

The Price of Growing Smarter

The reduced reliance on the strength of our teeth and jaws has moved in parallel with another major trait in human development: our increasing brain size. As the human brain has expanded to take a progressively larger place in the skull, one of the fastest ways our bodies have been able to keep pace was to shrink the size of our jaw, pulling it higher into the skull.

Unfortunately, even as the skull has reshaped itself over evolutionary time, our teeth have not quite kept pace. One of the most visible effects this development has had is its effect on wisdom teeth. Shorter jaws do not allow wisdom teeth the proper space they need to develop in our mouths. This leads to teeth that are misaligned, making dental work painfully necessary. Following the course of human teeth through history as they have become less straight gives an excellent entry point into the modern jaw.

Cooking—A Recipe for Crooked Teeth

As straight, tough teeth have become less necessary, our mouths have taken on a wider variety of possible forms. Unfortunately, this frequently means that our teeth no longer grow in straight and neatly aligned. If this seems odd to you, compare the teeth of a dog or a cat to yours. With little or no attention to their dentition, their teeth have developed and maintained themselves likely as well or better than yours. This happens because evolutionary pressure has forced those species to have consistently good teeth. A dog with poor teeth will not be able to chew through the tough bundles of fiber that make up raw meat. Cooking that meat breaks it down, and allows humans with a wider variety of dentition with which to eat.

An interesting side effect of cooking on the changing strength and shape of our teeth is pottery. That's right, pottery. Prior to pottery, a human without any remaining teeth would be very hard-pressed to find foods that they could eat. But when pottery arrives in human history, we see humans living on past the lifespan of their teeth. This corresponds with their ability to draw nutrition from soups, gruels, and other soft foods.

Your Evolution Starts Now: Get a Degree in Dental Assisting!

This ability to live past the useful lifespan of our teeth has been a game-changer for humanity. But it comes with a cost, as humans live into older ages, they will require trained, enthusiastic professionals to help maintain these vital components of their body. If teeth get you excited, perhaps working in dentistry would be a good fit. Thankfully, ECPI University offers an accelerated program to help you get your start as a dental assistant. You could earn your Associate Degree in Health Science with a concentration in Dental Assisting in as little as fifteen months. Contact ECPI University today—it could be the Best Decision You Ever Make!

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