Teeth Stories Don’t Start & End With The Tooth Fairy
Teeth Stories Don’t Start & End With The Tooth Fairy
We know that from palaeontology. More specifically, it’s paleozoology that gives the script of who’s who in the zoo. It’s from here that we know that findings of powerful jaws and long, sharp teeth are the tail end of a theropod tale: from chicken-sized dinosaurs right through to those with the mass of a modern-day elephant, they’re flesh tearing, bone breaking narrations of serrations and grip-and-rip action.
Herbivores are a wider, flatter dental story of a life of mashing grind. Every dental pit and scratch on any fossilised tooth is a post-it note from a million-year-old diet that didn’t involve Uber Eats, online payments and social media snaps.
From diet to evolution, a tome of information comes from the teeth of our ancestors. With tooth enamel being 97% mineral, they’re stronger than bone and more likely to survive in such a disproportionately prevalent way that palaeoanthropologists often recover hundreds of them for every partial skull or skeleton discovered. From the tooth’s shape to the thickness of the enamel tells almost everything about the human whose mouth the tooth once inhabited: where they lived, what they ate, what disease they suffered and the age at which they died.
Artificial Resynthesis Technology (ART) is a robotic device that imitates the chewing of the human jaw. This simulator reveals how different foods impact teeth; which types of foods leave tiny abrasions. It has significant implications in our understanding of the hominin diet – particularly those thought to have been largely carnivorous. Meat doesn’t have a microwear signature, and it could change how the dental remains of hominins are analysed, especially those of Neanderthals.
Marks on ancient teeth are as interesting as ancient teeth marks – the story of the hunter as the hunted is a familiar one that has resounded at least since Artemis transformed Actaeon into a stag. Such is the price of watching a goddess bathe – having your own hunting dogs turn on you. Now there’s a houndstooth pattern Coco Chanel wouldn’t wear.
Considered Homo sapiens closest relative, a recent study suggests Neanderthals scavenged the leftovers of large carnivores and large carnivores returned the favour. Teeth found at a site in Marillac, western France, show signs of having being swallowed and later expelled, correcting an earlier conclusion that they had belonged to a deer or a cow. They were in fact human teeth, damaged from having been ingested.
A team of Spanish researchers have used contemporary cases of carnivore attacks on humans to establish any similarities with bite marks found on Neanderthal bones. Over more than 120 incidents of lion, tiger, leopard and bear attacks, fossilised remains from the Pleistocene period (40,000 to 200,000 years ago) revealed striking likenesses in pattern. One case pinpointed that puncture marks in the skull of a Neanderthal child unearthed in Valencia, were indeed from the big cat family.
Until the lion tells the story hunter will always be the hero (as the African proverb reminds us) and much like the age rings of a tree, microscopic growth marks within the enamel surface develop as baby teeth form; both prior to birth and during the first few years of life.
So if it all seems like it’s only the old in the tooth that brings any news, and that it’s only about the aged and the ancient, take note of Massachusetts in 2022. For this is the year that Boston researchers are seeking a diverse group of women who were pregnant on April 13, 2013.
Why? Because that’s the date of the Boston Marathon bombing in which three people lost their lives, and 280 were injured. What they’re wanting to find is whether children’s teeth can presuppose who they will become, and what mental health challenges they may face in their future.
Dr Erin Dunn, associate professor at Massachusetts General Hospital, envisions the day where physicians will routinely screen the canines and incisors of children to determine signs of early life trauma. Such scrutiny could alleviate or possibly circumvent, later life issues.
The recruitment of 250 women from the New England area who were either pregnant at the time of the bombing, or had given birth a year before, and so far the team is only fifty participants short of their required number. Notably, study volunteers do not have to have had any direct experience with the horrific event.
To prove the hypothesis, in 2021 Dunn’s team published findings from a study of 70 British children born in the early 1990s. The Tooth-Fairy-delivered canine teeth of children aged between five and seven, along with surveys of their mothers, had been stored in an English repository as part of a multi-decade study of mothers and children. This cohort research found evidence that maternal stress can become biologically embedded; that teeth record this psychosocial risk exposure during prenatal and perinatal life. Prior to this, nothing valid, or inexpensive as a biomarker of stress exposure and its impact on brain health in children was available. Specifically, it’s neonatal line width that appears to have an association with prenatal and perinatal encounters.
Four types of prenatal and perinatal maternal psychopathological factors were examined: personal history, stressful life events, neighbourhood disadvantage, and social support.
83.8% of the children in the study were born full term, and to mothers of typical childbearing age.
Neonatal lines were wider in the canines of children of mothers who self-reported severe lifetime depression, any lifetime psychiatric problems or elevated anxiety or symptoms of depression at 32 weeks gestation. Narrower lines were evident in the offspring of mothers who self-reported high social support shortly after birth, with the magnitude of these associations prevalent, even after making adjustments for other risk factors.
The Boston Marathon bombing was chosen because it gives a distinct set point for researchers: a clear start and end date; it happened on a community-wide scale, and affected a large number of people. Of interest to the team is whether the mother was a competitor in the event, a spectator – either along route, or via tv – and if there were any people known to them who were killed or injured.
The aim of the research is to determine an unfailing correlation between teeth markings and stress, to open the opportunity for a new tool as a primary guide for prevention efforts. Further to that is the possible development of strategies to improve resilience among not only affected children, but children in general.
Usually, we have to get to the end of a story before we know how it all turns out. In future, we may be able to rewrite an entire life journal from the first few scratchings of a manuscript that’s yet to be written.
Now that’s a story worth waiting for.
Note: All content and media on the Bacchus Marsh Dental House website and social media channels are created and published online for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice.
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