I have been thinking about teeth. Jerry and I watch a Teaching Company lecture every night before bed and this month it has been a course on Evolution. Much of what is known about animals of the past comes from looking at fossil teeth. After death teeth last better than any other part of the body, so often the only clue to a long gone creature’s existence is its teeth. Paleontologists can tell fish from amphibian, amphibian from reptile and reptile from mammal by examining teeth. Mammals have milk teeth and their teeth are differentiated for different specific functions.
Recently there was a find in Alaska of an 11,500 year old site that showed the earliest evidence of human habitation there. At the site they found the teeth of a young child. The teeth showed the baby to have been about 3 when he or she died. The child had apparently been cremated in the camp fire, and then the site was abandoned.
You might think that the only function of teeth is to chew food — or to catch it in the case of animals like sharks or crocodiles. In primates, and perhaps in other animals, teeth have a social function which has evolved along with their morphology. Chimps have big canines. This is not related to diet, but rather the chimp “grin” (not friendly) is meant to threaten other chimps. It may be used in sexual rivalries between males. Chimps bare their teeth and rush around flapping branches and waving their arms in dominance displays. The human smile, with its puny little canines, is a friendly, sociable greeting meaning peace.
As humans evolved from ape like ancestors their teeth evolved reflecting changes in diet. As the African climate changed during the ice ages — it got progressively cooler and dryer — the teeth of our primate ancestors changed to cope with a wide variety of foods. They gradually shifted from a diet that was mostly soft fruits and leaves to one that included meat, potato like roots, seeds, parts of grasses, insects, flowers and nuts. Pretty much anything they could get their hands on.
Some people have inferred a rather specific prehistoric diet from the structure of teeth. This is the so called “paleo” diet, supposed to include the things that humans ate in the Paleolithic era, presumably before agriculture but probably not before cooking. It seems probable that the diets of paleolithic people differed depending on the environment that a particular population lived in. Some ate more meat and seafood, some more insects (ugh), some more fruits, some more roots, seeds of grasses and nuts. They ate what was available.
According to some researchers it was when people learned how to cook that tooth trouble started. Cooked food is softer. Teeth got smaller and more crowded. When agriculture began this got worse. We didn’t need our wisdom teeth any more. Our occlusion got sloppy. We needed orthodontia and dentures. And implants.
Implants are another reason I have been thinking about teeth. Like other animals of my species, my teeth are the result of the evils of agriculture and cooking. I was genetically lacking two permanent teeth, the second molars in my upper jaw. The baby teeth lasted into middle age, when they finally became loose and I had bridges made. This meant that four other teeth, two on either side of the missing teeth, had to be ground down. Recently one of the bridges failed and one of the ground down teeth became abscessed. Woe is me!
My choice was between more bridge work (more ground down teeth) or implants. I chose implants, despite the horrendous cost. Of course it’s partly vanity; I don’t want to go around with big dark gaps between my teeth that would show when I smile.
Ancient people cared about this too. The skull of a young Mayan woman of around 600 AD was found with tooth shaped pieces of shell implanted in the bone of her jaw. At first archeologists thought that this was done to prepare her body for burial, but when the bone was studied microscopically it was found that bone tissue had grown around the implanted shells, indicating that they were placed during her life.
Implants today are done in stages. My first appointment with the implant specialist was for x-rays and evaluation to make sure I had enough bone left in my jaw (though my regular dentist declared that I had “oodles of bone.”)
The implant specialist’s office was in Burlington, dreary town of strip malls about 30 miles from Bellingham. There were 3 pleasant receptionists and technicians, all of whom had really beautiful teeth. One of them took the 3-d x-rays of my jaw and neck.
The dentist introduced himself and shook my hand. “I’m Curtis Wade,” he said. I liked that. He didn’t say, “I’m Dr. Wade.” He was short and nice looking, in his late 50’s I would guess, though I find it hard these days to tell how old people are. He wore surgical scrubs and a cap with a trout fishing fly pattern. White curls escaped from the band of his cap. He showed me the x-rays — a scan of the bones of my head and neck. I saw my jaws and teeth, the arthritis in my neck, my hyoid bone (one of the things that makes me human and gives me the ability to talk.) Dr. Wade explained it all.
The next day, as he was screwing the titanium rod into my jaw bone all the way up to the sinus, he said, “It’s sort of like working on a car.”
The next time I had an opportunity to speak I asked, “Do you have a little wrench in there?”
They keep everything behind you so you have no idea what they’re doing. Every now and then he would say, “You’re going to hear a pop,” or “You’re going to feel pressure,” or “You’re going to hear a lot of grinding.” It isn’t something I’d want to experience often.
The procedure took less than an hour. I have 2 titanium rods in my jaw. In 4 months I get teeth screwed on them. In the meantime I have a “flipper,” or what my dentist calls “party teeth.” I am not yet allowed to wear it, so I have to cover one side of my face when I smile.
I think I’ll be allowed to use the flipper next Thursday at the Mah Jongg game.
I hope your rods snug right down and you can get the teeth on soon!
Thanks for the info, it was interesting. I do believe that I’ll have to go down the implant road, fairly soon. ugg
Hope the procedure works well for you. I was squirming in empathy – I dislike having dental work done, even cleaning.
I like the interesting little lessons you share. I’m inspired to take some courses myself. Retirement looms and I can’t think of a better way to fill some time than learning something new!
I think they have to put me under or give me lots of Valium. Dental work did not bother me so much when I was younger…but I hate it now and needs lots of pain killer and nice music.
Hope you continue with the Teaching Company lectures, we are all learning so much from them 😉 Best wishes for the new teeth.
A fascinating post, Anne. I was squirming, too, when I read the titanium rod bit.
You write some of the most interesting essays, full of really neat “stuff.” Thank you.
Ah, the Mah Jongg tournament, in which you will rise to conquer, and flash that fully-toothed, dominant smile for all to see. I’m not convinced that we humans have fewer meanings to our smiles than do the chimpanzees.
Thanks for the educational info, Anne. I dread the bloody dentist even though all sorts of strategies have been developed for me, like laughing gas which speeds up time and Vivaldi and eyemask to shut out surroundings.
I have considered implants but the brutality of the procedure gives me palpitations….
That was interesting. I haven’t known much about implants but can see why you would choose that options. I also had dental work this winter and my crown still isn’t right. Teeth… can’t live with or without them… or don’t want to anyway.
How wonderful that you can get this done. I love the way you write about your experiences and relate them to the larger picture.
I’m sure you are in good hands and will be pleased with your new teeth.
It always made me laugh that my mother-in-law, clucking over my drooling babies, used to declare: Teeth: A trouble to get and a a trouble to get rid of.
I can’t feel your pain as the worst thing I have endured is having a tooth pulled and a root canal, but it sure doesn’t sound like a walk in the park.
I hope all goes well and I do appreciate the information in the event I am offered this option.
Fascinating information, thanks! Like you, I’m genetically lacking two permanent teeth. One baby tooth lasted into my 30’s. I could not afford the implants so have bridges and also dislike those black edges though they don’t show too badly unless I grin too widely! Good luck with the implants!
I do not think I can go this route. Always good teeth and now in 70’s with Sjogrens – dry mouth among what is happening. Anyway my teeth are beginning to be a problem. A daughter had implants and said it was more painful then childbirth…
I have teeth on my mind lately too. Seems I was about to lose a couple, so the periodontist I was referred to believed he could save them. I had surgery for building bone around 3 teeth, just two weeks ago. It was a simpler procedure than a root canal, but am still recovering, and I still have stitches, making eating on that side difficult. Hoping this procedure will let me hang on to the the teeth (by the skin of my teeth?), because implants on top of bone-building surgery is both very expensive and painful, or so I hear.
teeth are so important from the morale point of view. My mother had all of hers removed as an 18th birthday present, and was given dentures…I’m glad that times have changed!
Anne, the same day that I read your post about teeth, I cracked a tooth and had to have it pinned and rebuilt. If you turn up pregnant, please give me a heads-up, I won’t read your blog that day.
Amazing about the Mayan princess and her shell implants! I guess that must have been even more painful than your titanium ones.
As a child I believed that it must be impossible to reach middle age without having to have dentures.
You do write so calmly about everything, only the thought of eating insects seems to faze you!
Only you could make teeth both currently and historically interesting.