If These Teeth Could Talk

With funding from the National Science Foundation, Peter Ungar is revealing more details about the lives of our human ancestors, and he’s doing it through dentistry – sort of! The University of Arkansas anthropologist uses high tech dental scans to find out more about the diets of hominids, a technique that sometimes leads to new and very different conclusions. While anthropologists traditionally determine the diets of our ancestors by examining the size and shape of teeth and jaws, Ungar's powerful microscopes paint a more detailed picture by looking at wear patterns on teeth. And, sometimes what the teeth and jaws are built for is not always the preferred diet. A present day analogy is gorillas. Their teeth and jaws are built to eat hard, crunchy leaves and sticks. But when it is available, gorillas always prefer soft, tastier fruits, which they eat much of the time. Yet when fruit is scarce, their teeth and jaws are still tough enough to eat those leaves and sticks, so their anatomy, just like that of our ancestors, is built for kind of a "worst case scenario" when it comes to food availability. Ungar, who has also helped develop some of his specialized equipment, has now amassed hundreds of dental casts created from remains found in Africa, Australia, Asia, and Sumatra.

Provided by the National Science Foundation

Runtime: 2:33

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