Teeth are some of the best preserved and most commonly-recovered elements in human fossil assemblages, leading to more than a century of comparative studies of tooth size and shape. Dental tissues also preserve remarkably faithful records of their development through time, represented by incremental features in enamel and dentine. Counts and measurements of these features have been used to determine the rate and duration of tooth formation, stress experienced during development, and the age at death in juveniles. A promising new area of incremental feature research is the application of virtual histology via propagation phase contrast X-ray synchrotron microtomography, which facilitates fine-scaled study of dental development in rare juvenile hominin fossils. Moreover, recent syntheses of tooth growth and chemistry allow insights into ancient migration patterns and dietary changes. These new approaches have the potential to increase our understanding of human developmental biology, including changes in the pace of growth and reproduction and the evolution of human weaning. The integration of these temporal, chemical, and structural approaches heralds a bright future for dental tissue research in evolutionary anthropology.
Tanya Smith, Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University