Just out @ Nature
Palaeontology: Evolution with teeth
Teeth are a unique, enduring archive of a lifetime’s experiences, stretching back to before birth. They can reveal childhood hardship, seasonal migration, exposure to pollution, radiation or congenital syphilis, cultural modification, and age at death — as well as a wealth of information about diet. Thus, the teeth of our hominin predecessors in the archaeological and fossil record are a prodigious store of evidence. It’s hardly surprising that many scientists dedicate their careers to unlocking the evidence from modern and fossil teeth.
In Evolution’s Bite, palaeoanthropologist Peter Ungar offers a compelling account of how the interaction of teeth, diet and environment has shaped human evolution. This tale ranges from the formidable dentition of early hominin Paranthropus boisei, which roamed eastern Africa between 2.3 million and 1.3 million years ago, to the mismatched jaws and teeth of many living humans. The book also takes us on a fascinating tour of the fossil and archaeological record, climate history, field observations and lab-based analysis.
To kick off his exploration of human evolution, Ungar analyses the interplay of food and tooth form. Hard, brittle foods such as seeds can be crushed between teeth with rounded cusps and shallow basins. Tough foods, such as raw meat or leaves, need to be sliced or sheared by teeth with thinner, blade-like crests. But when researchers set out to learn whether living primates’ diets could be predicted from the shape of their teeth, study after study revealed a mismatch between observed and expected diet. Tooth form reveals what primates are capable of eating — but that is not necessarily what they choose to eat when times are good. (…)
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