Teeth Tell Tales

January 21, 2008

In an earlier blog, I discussed how experimental archaeologists can help us understand how ancient hominids manufactured stone tools. Astute readers might bring up these two facts:

• Stone tools date back to “only” 2.6 million years ago, and
• Currently, the earliest fossil hominids are dated back to 6, perhaps even 7 million years ago.

Can we ever hope to reconstruct the oldest hominids’ behavior, given that we do not have the benefit of associated artifacts?

The answer is yes. Our ability to reconstruct ancient hominid behavior predating the earliest know stone tools is more limited than that of the genus Homo, but it is possible nonetheless. How? The clues are in the bones and teeth.

Working like a forensic anthropologist:  paleoanthropologists can tell us about the age of individuals and their diet. Lucy is identified as an adult individual based on the presence of her wisdom teeth.

With regards to reconstructing ancient diet: the teeth of the species Paranthropus boisei were very large, set in immense jaws, with the lower jaw connected by massive muscles to a bony ridge on top of the skull. This configuration suggests the ability to crack open or chew through some very tough foods.

Given that Paranthropus existed for 900,000 years or more, the retention of these dental traits must imply that this dental characteristic served a purpose. As the thinking goes, if Paranthropus was eating primarily softer food items, like berries, then over time, its massive jaw architecture and very large teeth would have diminished in size.

Authored By Dirk Van Tuerenhout

As curator of anthropology, Dirk is responsible for the museum’s artifact collection and is involved in its temporary and permanent anthropology exhibits. Dirk is an expert in human cultures; he curates the Museum’s Hall of the Americas and specializes in native American cultures like the Aztec and Maya.

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