Human teeth, comprised of two of the hardest materials made by the human body, generally withstand the test of time and a thus a great resource for archaeologists seeking to understand how those in previous times lived—primarily through what they ate.
Archaeologists employ several visual techniques when analyzing ancient incisors. Dental wear and tear is a function of type of diet, masticatory forces and the non-masticatory use of teeth. To determine the diet a person subsisted on, archeologists examine the pattern of wear as well as specific markings left on the tooth, otherwise known as dental microwear. Archaeologists utilize resin impressions, microscopes, and 3D topographical scans in order to obtain a close-up view. Striations left on the enamel, in the form of pits and scratches, indicate whether a person ate hard brittle food or tough food that required mandible sheering. Striations can also help archaeologists conclude if the person was living off of a meat or vegetable diet. If a tooth has primarily vertical striations, this would demonstrate a meat diet. Both vertical and horizontal striations, however, are indicative of a vegetable diet
Dental analysis can also be done using the naked eye. This form of archaeological analysis, dental macrowear, can indicate overall nutrition and health, as well as other important factors like age. Archaeologists fashion molds of teeth through non-invasive pouring and casting techniques. Close analysis of these can show the person’s chewing cycle, or tooth wear through grinding. The presence of tooth decay and loss is a main indicator of a person’s health and what food they primarily subsisted off of. A carbohydrate rich diet will be indicated through a greater presence of degenerative changes. This decay also helps archeologists date when specific communities of hunter-gatherers transitioned to an agricultural way of living.To determine age, archaeologists look towards the overall the size, shape, growth, and placement of teeth within the skull. Tooth calculus, or the accumulation of plaque, also help with concluding age for the plaque builds up with time. The number and type of tooth eruptions are also examined, for fewer eruptions indicate that the person was of a younger age at the time of death.
Genetic information as well as location and culture can also be garnered through the close archaeological analysis of excavated teeth. Even after thorough bodily decomposition, it is often possible to extract DNA from human teeth. This can then be used to uncover genetic makeup which then helps archaeologists trace lineage and migration patterns. Changes in climate and other historical trends often are indicated by some form of immigration pattern. DNA also provides information on populations that suffered mass disease epidemics. Dental modifications also help archeologists reveal cultural practices. Examples of such include teeth inlayed with decorative jewels and stones, dental etching and filing, and teeth staining.
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Bioarchaeological isotope analysis is complementary to dental archaeology. How can these two combined give us a deeper understanding of an individual or culture’s eating patterns than only one of these techniques alone?