Have you ever considered how remarkable teeth are? Really? It’s likely you haven’t because we take so many of the intricate parts and processes of our bodies for granted, but not only are teeth necessary and useful for quality of life and health, they can serve to identify you specifically after your death, and they have been able to tell researchers so many useful things about the lives, eras, and biomes of times long lost to history. Your teeth have stories to tell.
From books, television, and movies we’re familiar with odontology, or the study of teeth for the investigation of identity and crime. We know that dental records are admissible evidence in court (since 1849) and that burned bodies can often only be identified by their teeth. The mysteries of what happened to Adolf Hitler, Joseph Mengele, Lee Harvey Oswald, and the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas Romanov, were solved with dental records. So were the identities of many of the victims of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
Just this month researchers at John Hopkins University announced that, based on their study of teeth that survived within the fossil record, they now think that humans transitioned to a plant-based diet nearly a half a million years before previously believed. How could they tell that? From teeth. Researchers examined 152 fossil teeth from a variety of grazing species that had once lived in what is now Ethiopia and from carbon isotope distributions determined what they ate. This in turn allows scientists to further speculate about how climate, vegetation, and animals interacted with each other in ancient environments.
Also this month a new technique called incremental dentine collagen analysis, done by scientists on the baby teeth of children who died in the Irish Potato Famine, was used to determine what their diets were like and the point at which starvation set in. The teeth came from bodies buried at workhouses in Kilkenny and in London, and because they were still developing, it’s possible to see from the way carbon and nitrogen were deposited whether their diets were potato- or corn-based. Scientists believe that the composition of teeth in children may contain information about their future health risks.
In general people worry about their teeth and how healthy they are at the moment so they can avoid the pain and health risks associated with tooth decay and gum disease. But with rapidly developing technology, what will scientists of the future be able to tell about the details of our personal lives from the condition of our teeth after death? It’s interesting to consider and may give you another reason to brush and floss today.