A 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,” 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. “The Tales Teeth Tell: De­vel­op­ment Evo­lu­tion Be­hav­ior” By Tanya M. Smith MIT Press


Tanya M. Smith

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