Fossilized Teeth Could Finally Reveal the Story of Our Species

Ancient teeth found in China may hold the key to the story of human migration and population. Discovery of teeth raises doubts about the ‘Out of Africa’ theory.

Fossilized Teeth Could Reveal Story of our Species

Image by Ian Armstrong on Flickr.

Over the last twelve months, there have been some major breakthroughs in archaeology and the sequencing of early human DNA. While all new developments are exciting and promise to tell experts much about the early life of our species, these discoveries are particularly special. For the first time, scientists and anthropologists have been forced to rethink the widely accepted ‘Out of Africa’ theory of migration and human diaspora.

And it is all thanks to some (very) old teeth. In 2015, in southern China, archaeological digs at Fuyan Cave, in Daoxin, uncovered a treasure trove of 47 human teeth. Now this alone is not unheard of; the teeth of early modern humans have been found many times before. What makes this discovery special is the fact that the teeth have been dated back to at least 80,000 years ago. This is almost 20,000 years earlier than scientists expected.

It raises some interesting questions about the widely accepted theory that the first human populations spread outwards, from the horn of Africa, as part of one massive major migration. Over the years, evidence of early modern humans has been found which predates this migration, but there has never been any indication of successful dispersion outside of it. For most researchers, the evidence represents a number of early failed migrations.

Reconsidering the Past

However, the discovery of even older teeth in China is a strong indication that there may have been some successful attempts to move outwards, from Africa, before the major migration which eventually populated the world. If true, the new theory could revolutionise our understanding of human evolution. At the moment, the most popular theory presumes that all living humans are derived from a single migration across the Red Sea 60,000 years ago.

It is highly likely that the teeth found in Fuyan Cave are as old as scientists believe, because they were sealed inside a calcitic floor. This material, essentially, functioned as a rudimentary gravestone and prevented the teeth and animal fossils found with them from being disturbed. The teeth are easy to date because they must be older than this calcitic surface.

Furthermore, the surface was topped by stalagmites which have also been dated back to 80.000 years ago. According to the experts, anything and everything found below the stalagmites has to be older than they are. So, the teeth discovered in Daoxin could actually be as old as 125,000 years. It also helps that the animal fossils found at the scene are compatible with those representative of the Pleistocene period.

Using Teeth to Unlock Our Secrets

There are a number of reasons why teeth are so valuable when it comes to archaeology. They can tell us a lot more about early humans than where they were living. From the grooves, marks, and damage to their surface, scientists can make some pretty accurate assumptions as to what they were likely to be eating as well. In fact, the scope of this kind of discovery was recently demonstrated within the ruins of Pompeii.

From nothing but teeth taken from the skeletons of people who died in the city, experts have been able to construct a detailed picture of life in ancient Rome. Contrary to popular opinion, we now know that many of the so called ‘slaves’ and servants enjoyed much finer diets than expected. And the hands and charges given the responsibility of caring for wealthy masters often ate as well as their owners.

Teeth also represent a reliable indicator of age. No matter where a person lived or even how far along the evolutionary chain they existed, their teeth will exhibit clear and consistent signs of maturity. This is why it is relatively easy for archaeologists and scientists to date skeletons and fossilised remains. They also tell experts whether a population was prone to certain types of genetic disease or ailment. All in all, teeth are extremely valuable.

Getting to Know Our Ancestors

In 2010, a similar dental based discovery was made in Siberia. It is just as significant (if not more) as the discovery found at Fuyan Cave, because scientists believe that these teeth belong to a brand new kind of human – a species somewhere in between the Neanderthal and the early modern human. The problem with the find was that, back in 2010, there was no accurate way to date the teeth or the location.

Skip forward to 2015, however, and state of the art technology has now been used to sequence the DNA from a tiny female finger bone. The results could not have been more surprising. The bone belonging to the female is not only much older than expected (around 50,000 years), but the teeth can be dated back an extraordinary 110,000 and 170,000 years. This can only mean that different members of the same species routinely returned to the same location, many thousands of years apart.

It is not yet known why this might have happened, but scientists hope to learn more about the species (which they have dubbed ‘the Denisovans’) by continuing to study the remains. What they do know so far is that the three individuals found in the cave were not closely related. This further supports the theory that the area may have been used by many different members of the same species, for a lengthy period.

When Different Species Converge

One of the most interesting discoveries made at this site in Siberia was the presence of several additional species. There were the three ‘new species,’ but there was also evidence of Neanderthal activity and visitations from early modern humans. This shows that the site itself must have been of great importance or, at the very least, held some major draws for a number of different populations.

The cave is very spacious and filled with light, but also offers some protection from the elements. So, it would have made an effective shelter and a safe place to store food, sleep, mate, and socialise. For ancestors, it clearly represented a place to call home. There are still many mysteries to be deciphered when it comes to the site in Siberia and scientists are working hard to gain as much information as possible from the ancient bone fragments.

It is lucky that teeth are such remarkable things. They might cause us all manner of grief while we are alive, but ironically, they outlast every other part of the body after death. The enamel in your teeth is the strongest material in your body and it will remain pristine for thousands of years. It is just another example of how special and valuable teeth really are. If you take good care of them, they’ll be with you for life.

Keep this in mind when you make a decision about the best dental membership plan available in your area. These days, the cost of dental services is more affordable than ever before. All that you have to do is discuss the best payment options for your situation (and salary) with your dentist. They will be able to talk you through the best options and help you put the necessary funds in place for any potential procedures that you might need in the future.

The Importance of Good Oral Health

If you want to make sure that your teeth stick around, keep up with regular dentist appointments and brush twice a day. Where possible, restrict sugary drinks (even fruit juices) to meal times and keep the consumption of carbonated drinks to a minimum. If you have not been to the dentist for a check-up in some time, take the opportunity to get back on track. The smallest of dental problems can very quickly turn into a major health issue.

This has been seen, many times, in the dental remains of early humans and ancient civilisations. Before the invention of modern dentistry and antibiotics, a minor ailment like an abscess could easily turn into a fatal infection. It seems absurd, from a modern perspective, to think of a simple toothache killing a man, but oral health really is an indicator of overall physical health. If you take care of your mouth, the rest will follow suit.

While the dentist can seem like a scary place, fear of the unknown can be dispelled by reading up on the most common treatments and procedures. Or, by arranging a friendly and informal consultation with your dental specialist. You should not be afraid to ask questions of your dentist. It is their job to answer them honestly, fairly, and with as much sensitively as possible. The dental profession is, first and foremost, a duty of care.  

Related Articles