Human teeth / vintage illustration from Meyers Konversations-Lexikon 1897

Dental anthropology is a field of study that uses teeth to answer questions about past and present human populations. Your dental ancestry ties you to people across generations. Given their nature, function, and hereditary component, teeth help researchers understand relationships between populations and evolution. As seen in our last post about mummy teeth, teeth preserve exceptionally well. Oftentimes, teeth help identify remains from our ancient past. Skeletal teeth shed light on eating habits, cultural behavior, and environmental stress. Among all these things, teeth also indicate the heritage of the humans they belong to. Have you ever noticed indentations or bumps as you slide your tongue across your teeth? These small differences in human teeth are little-known cues of our ancestry.

Shovel Teeth

It is said that Native Americans have “shovel shaped teeth”, but is there any truth to this myth? A group of researchers at Stanford University identified a rare mutation on the Y chromosome  that only exists in Eskimos and Indian populations in North and South America. Its rareness may serve as a genetic marker common with the people who first migrated to the Americas 30,000 years ago. Mutations in the Y chromosomes are extraordinarily uncommon. A single chromosomal change in all the world was passed down among the generations. As a result, “all Native Americans may be able to trace their heritage back to that one mutational event.”

Native American father holding his children and laughing on white background

The roots of shovel teeth are double the size of the actual tooth. The tooth is thinner and concave on the back side, like a shovel. This scooped appearance is visible to the naked eye and is more or less exaggerated varying by person.

A single man was responsible for this mutation among all Native Americans, and as it passed from father to son, it has forever connected the populations.

Carabelli Cusps

If you feel left out because you don’t descend from a Native American tribe, keep reading! Native Americans are not the only people with distinct dental traits. Opposite of Native American shovel teeth, Europeans have flat, straight teeth with smooth front and back sides. Descendants of European heritage share a bulge on the outside of their upper molars called a Carabelli Cusp. The personal dentist of Austrian Emperor Franz is the namesake of these peculiar nudges. In 1842, Carabelli identified this cusp on the surface of molars. It is most common on the first molar, but infrequently appears on the second or third molars. You may or may not be able to feel this bump by sliding your tongue over your maxillary first molar (the 6th tooth from the center of your mouth). If you can’t tell, ask your dentist! This bump is well documented across generations, and it widely indicates European ancestry. 51-90% of modern European descendants bear a Carabelli Cusp on at least one of their molars.

Human chromosomes isolated on white background, 3D illustration

Your teeth tell a story that dates past your birth. Before you sign up for Ancestry.com, look to see what your teeth can tell you about your heritage. Next time you’re in the chair, ask your dental professional what he or she sees. You might be surprised what they find! There are many other tooth traits that tell the story of human populations.