Did you know that your teeth keep a record of where you grew up?
Researchers have discovered how to analyze tooth enamel to determine what oxygen isotopes were present when the teeth were forming, from approximately two to eight years old. Because of the variability in oxygen isotopes from place to place, scientists can then match the isotopes that were present in an individual’s past to a geographic location — showing them precisely where that person’s teeth were formed!
Prehistoric Tooth Enamel Indicates Wide-Ranging Travel
When this method was applied to teeth recovered from the graves of prehistoric humans buried in Britain, the findings were astonishing: As early as 2500 BC, ancient Britons were not just traveling around their own country, but were even traveling to and from continental Europe! While some of the tooth enamel indicated that their bearers grew up and were buried in the same place, many indicated the opposite — that people buried in one place grew up in a completely different one.
It’s incredible to think that tooth enamel tells us that prehistoric humans may have been traveling as far and as frequently as people were traveling thousands of years later — but without the aid of the same transportation tools that were later developed. “The diversity is similar to what you would expect to find in medieval ports and cities,” said Lead author Dr. Maura Pellegrini.
Teeth as Tools for Science
Teeth can be incredibly useful tools for scientists to study. Like bones, teeth decay much more slowly than other human tissues, so they’re long-lasting sources of data on our ancestors. But unlike bones, teeth are accessible to us day-to-day — from eating to drinking to dental work, we have an impact on our tooth enamel, and that impact can be seen and studied even thousands of years later.
Studies of ancient plaque have told scientists that a thousand years ago, people’s teeth were plagued by many of the same bacteria we face today. And tooth fragments from dig sites in Pakistan and Italy have shown that human have been practicing dentistry for over 5,000 years!
Someday, scientists in the distant future might use your tooth enamel to figure out where you went, and what you ate, and how your oral hygiene was performed. Luckily, we have made great strides since the “dentistry” of prehistoric times! Unlike ancient humans, we can practice good oral hygiene at home to combat bacteria and tooth decay, and our dentists can perform regular checkups and cleanings — much better than scraping away plaque with flint and filling cavities with beeswax!