General archaeology is the study of human history through materials and artifacts that are discovered or unearthed. When human remains are uncovered at an archaeological site, their study falls under a type of anthropology known as bioarchaeology. This form of archaeology was originally named in 1972 by the British archaeologist Grahame Clark. The first bioarchaeology was more like a type of zooarchaeology, however, as it primarily focused on studying the remains of animals found at archaeology sites. The archaeological study of human remains became the known definition several years later, in 1977, courtesy of Jane Ellen Buikstra.
Studying the bones and teeth of humans who’ve lived and died in the past provides a wealth of information for scientists. These skeletal remains can tell the health, age, and gender of an individual. Through dental bioarchaeology, or the study of the teeth of humans discovered at archaeological sites, even more information can be discovered about the individual and about the area being researched.
A person’s teeth and bones are what remain after their bodies have long since decomposed, and in some cases, the teeth may outlast bones and be the only part of the body that remains. Like bones, dental remains can reveal the health of the individual, and they can also reveal details about a person’s diet, including their nutrition, ancestry, and age.
When human remains are discovered at an archaeological site, determining the age of the person at the time of death is crucial. Not only does it help determine the age of death for the individual being studied, but when more than one body is discovered, it can also help determine the common age of death for a population of people. To start, the number and type of tooth eruptions are examined. Because age dictates approximately when permanent tooth eruptions occur, one can determine how young a child was at the age of their death: The fewer of these eruptions that took place before death, the younger the person would have been. Degenerative changes and tooth enamel wear are also used to gauge age: The greater the amount of wear, the older the individual would have been. The amount of wear can also be compared to that of other dental remains found in the area to help to determine whether the individual was in the same age range as the rest of the population.
Dental remains have famously been used to study certain groups of people, such as the people who lived roughly 1,400 years ago in the lower Rio Verde Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico. In addition, recent imaging of bodies from Pompeii has provided insight into the diet of the people who died there as a result of the Mount Vesuvius eruption in 79 A.D. The results of this examination indicated that the inhabitants of the area seemingly had perfect teeth. Studies have also been done on the teeth of ancient Egyptians.
Teeth can also reveal cultural practices common in certain regions or peoples. This can be seen in dental modifications that were practiced by people in certain societies around the world. These modifications have come in various forms, including the removal of teeth or the mutilation of them. For example, in some ancient cultures, people filed their teeth to sharpen them into points. In other societies, people created holes in their teeth and fitted them with embellishments such as ornamental stones or jewels. Other societies may have unintentionally modified their teeth as a result of routine actions that were necessary for their survival.
- Bioarchaeologist Studies Dental Remains to Explore the Ancient People and Culture of Oaxaca’s Lower Rio Verde Valley
- Bioarchaeology: The Lives and Lifestyles of Past People (PDF)
- You Are What You Ate: Bioarchaeology
- Tooth Development in Human Evolution and Bioarchaeology (PDF)
- Teeth Tell Ancient Tales
- Bioarchaeological Analysis of Cultural Transition in the Southern Levant Using Dental Nonmetric Traits (PDF)
- Ancient Pompeiians Had Good Dental Health But Were Not Necessarily Vegetarians
- Dental Anthropology (PDF)
- The Sketetons of Olmos: How to Uncover a Skeleton’s Secrets
- Teeth, Age at Death, and Archaeology: The Application of Tooth Histology as a Means of Determining Age at Death for Human Remains
- Dental Caries as Evidence for Dietary Change: An Archaeological Context (PDF)
- Dental Health and Disease of Ancient Egyptians
- Dental Modification: An Anthropological Perspective (PDF)
- Age Estimation of Children From Prehistoric Southeast Asia (PDF)
- Stressing Out in Medieval Denmark: Dental Enamel Defects and Age at Death in Medieval Danish Cemeteries