Three Times that Teeth Changed Archaeology

Teeth are an incredible gift to archeology, as they are often the toughest part of an organism and best-preserved, long after the skeleton has decayed or the fossilized body disintegrated. Because of this, it's no surprise some of the most radical changes in our understanding of archeology have stemmed from fossil teeth.

Teeth discovered to reveal vitamin D history of their owners
A recent paper published in the Journal of Archeological Science reported the discovery of a permanent record of vitamin D deficiency, reflected in the microscopic structure of excavated teeth. In periods where insufficient vitamin D was obtained from food or the sun, teeth develop tiny gaps and "bubbles" in the dentin. This record of deficiency correlates with other skeletal indications (such as the condition rickets), which are not always preserved by the end of the individual’s life. Through teeth, researchers now have an additional avenue through which to gain insight into diet, climate conditions and health of ancient people.

Dentistry emerged much earlier than we thought
Until recently, the oldest discovered evidence of dental treatment was a 6,500-year-old jawbone unearthed in Slovenia. In one of the teeth, a hole deep enough to reach the dentin layer had been drilled, and spectrographic analysis revealed the presence of beeswax, possibly to seal the hole.

Earlier this year, several teeth twice as old as the Slovenian tooth (13,000 years old) were dug up at the Riparo Fredian site, an archeological dig near Lucca in northern Italy. The teeth had been precisely drilled and the pulp chamber packed with bitumen, a semi-solid petroleum compound which also has antibiotic properties. This is now the earliest evidence for dental treatment, and is surprisingly sophisticated for the time period.

Tooth found in Germany radically shifts idea of African origins
Just this year, two teeth -an upper left canine and upper right first molar, for the curious- were found in the Rhine River and have been dated to nearly 9.7 million years old. This age is around the time the human ancestors diverged from what would become the great apes and precedes Australopithecus aferensis, such as the famous "Lucy" fossil, by a good four million years. Up until this point, humans were thought to have evolved in Africa, but this discovery could possibly indicate a colony of human ancestors in Europe. Right now, it is too early to draw any conclusions, but these teeth could be the first evidence placing the true birthplace of humanity in Europe.

Ancient Origins. (2017). 13,000-Year-Old Bitumen Dental Fillings Found in Italy: Earliest Example of Dentistry Known to Date. [online] Available at: [Accessed 13 Nov. 2017].

Klein, J. (2017). Old Teeth Tell New Stories About People Who Didn’t Get Enough Sun. [online] Available at: [Accessed 13 Nov. 2017].

ResearchGate. (2017). 9.7 million-year-old teeth found in Germany resemble those of human ancestors in Africa. [online] Available at: [Accessed 13 Nov. 2017].

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