Paleolithic teeth yield solutions for modern dentistry

Early human teeth were healthier than modern teeth, says Steinhardt Museum researcher
06 December 2016

Pictured: Dr. Rachel Sarig


Among the about 5 million specimens at TAU’s Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, Israel National Center for Biodiversity Studies, are hundreds of ancient sets of teeth that are helping shed light on today’s most pressing dental problems.   


Dr. Rachel Sarig, a dental anthropologist at the Steinhardt Museum and a specialist in orthodontics at TAU’s Maurice and Gabriela Goldschleger School of Dental Medicine, is investigating why early human teeth appear to be healthier than contemporary teeth. “Today, 70% of the population suffers from overcrowding of teeth in the mouth, misaligned teeth, jaws that don’t fit together and pesky wisdom teeth that need extracting,” says Sarig.


According to Sarig, the problem of overcrowding has developed since prehistoric times. “When we look at skulls that date back more than 100,000 years, we see that the teeth are very well aligned,” she says. Analyzing mandibles and teeth at the museum’s Dan David Center for Human Evolution and Biohistory Research, Sarig and her colleagues are determining the origins of teeth and jaw problems. They are applying their findings to improving modern dental practices.


The planned opening of the Steinhardt Natural History Museum was celebrated at the Annual Gala of the American Friends of Tel Aviv University at the World Trade Center in New York on December 7, 2016. The event honored the Museum’s benefactor – the philanthropist, financier and investor, Michael Steinhardt – and was attended by his wife, Judy, and members of the Steinhardt family, as well as by TAU Chairman of the Board Prof. Jacob A. Frenkel; TAU President Prof. Joseph Klafter; AFTAU National Chairman Richard Sincere; Consulate General of New York Dani Dayan; and Chair of the Museum Prof. Tamar Dayan. 


The Steinhardt Museum, which evokes Noah’s Ark in its architectural design, will tell the story of biodiversity in Israel and the Middle East in recent centuries and the history of mankind over the last million-and-a-half years. Thousands of items from TAU’s vast natural history collection will be presented to the public for the first time as part of the Museum’s exhibitions. The 9,620 sq. meter building will welcome scientists and students from Israel and around the world, schoolchildren, teachers, nature guides, families and tourists. About 150,000 people are expected to visit annually.


It’s all in the diet

Why did modern human’s teeth get so cramped?


The TAU team believes that the overcrowding, like many modern ailments, is related to environmental factors and diet. “If you eat raw food mixed with seeds, berries and particles of sand and stones, the mixture is abrasive,” says Sarig. This exercises the jaw muscles and causes teeth to grind and work harder. “Nowadays, our diets are made up largely of processed foods which don’t exercise the jaw and cause the muscles to atrophy,” she says.   


Sarig and her colleagues discovered that jaw and teeth changes are mainly observed in the Natufian culture some 12,000 years ago –on the cusp of the agricultural revolution. “During this time there was a transition from a hunter-gatherer to an organized society, and animals began to be raised for food,” says Sarig. “This was a turning point in human development and had a massive effect on physiology.”


“Today, we don’t activate our jaws like the ancients did,” says Sarig. “We should take prehistoric man as an example of healthy dentition.”


In a separate research direction, Sarig is using tooth specimens in the collection to determine early human migration patterns from Africa through Israel to Europe. “The limestone caves that dot the Carmel range in northern Israel and other areas have yielded thousands of long bones, mandibles and teeth, many of them excavated by TAU scientists,” says Sarig. “From these specimens, we estimated that the earliest migrations through Israel were 100,000 years ago; however, recent findings by TAU scientists may point to far earlier migrations in the region,” she notes.  




Pictured above: The Qafzeh 9 skull (ca. 100,000 years) demonstrates well aligned teeth with enough space for third molars and no crowding in the incisors teeth.  



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