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Culinary Practices And The Modern Human Bite

Posted Mar 28 2013 11:22pm

Dr. Weston Price showed that cultures that change from native to modern, Western diets produce jaws with more dental crowding, crooked teeth and more cavities. Others have shown that softer foods and even bottle-feeding can also promote dental crowding. Smaller jaws can lead to smaller airways, leading to a number of health problems due to poor sleep. Here’s an interesting perspective on how modern man’s bites have changed simply by eating in a more civilized manner: using table knives and forks. 

Staff writer for the New Yorker magazine  Jane Kramer reviews a book by Bee Wilson, “ Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook And Eat .” On the third page of the online version, there a section where the author describes the work of American anthropologist Charles Loring Brace, who specialized in the evolution of hominid teeth. He dates the onset of the modern Western overbite at around 250 years. Prior to this human incisors lined up edge to edge, like a guillotine. Then all of a sudden, human jaws, especially in the more civilized areas (who used forks and knives to cut meat into bite-sized pieces), started to develop an overbite. This change happened too quickly to be as a result of evolution. Here’s an excerpt from Kramer’s article:

By the late eighteenth century in Europe, people were slicing their food into bite-size morsels and carrying them to their mouths with forks—those formerly weird things, Wilson calls them. And they hardly needed to chew such tiny pieces, which in most cases were already softened by pounding, overcooking, or long, gentle braisings. At the same time, the modern overbite began to appear prominently in upper-class Western European jaws. Do not confuse this with the seriously inconvenient condition known to the world as buck teeth (without which we would have no orthodontists, and no mortified adolescents with mouthfuls of rubber bands and wire braces). Wilson’s modern overbite refers to “the way our top layer of incisors hangs over the bottom layer, like a lid on a box,” as she nicely puts it, and is “the ideal human occlusion” for the way we now eat. Why this happened and how long it took to happen is open to some debate, but it’s clear that until it happened most humans had the bite of other primates—“where the top incisors clash against the bottom ones, like a guillotine blade.”

Wilson’s favorite theory comes from the American physical anthropologist Charles Loring Brace, a specialist in the evolution of hominid teeth. In 1977, Brace published an article that put the age of the Western overbite at no more than two hundred and fifty years—which is to say that flatware and, with it, a significant change in how we chewed were all it took for the edge-to-edge occlusion that we inherited from the Neanderthals to be replaced by the bite we now call normal. Brace was haunted by overbites. He had long assumed them to be an incremental and selective evolutionary change that began with agriculture and the consumption of grains. But the jaws he studied, on his way to building a database on the evolution of hominid teeth—apparently the biggest in the world—changed his mind. The transformation he’d seen in those eighteenth-century-gentlemen jaws was too abrupt, and too radical, to qualify as evolution, especially given the rapidity with which it then followed the spread of flatware into the middle classes, in the nineteenth century. In 1914, in the run-up to war with Germany, a stainless-steel alloy—developed to prevent corrosion in gun barrels—went on sale in Sheffield, England. Once stainless appeared on the country’s dinner tables, the guillotine bite all but disappeared. 

There have been further significant milestones in how to eat our food, what foods we eat, as well as how we feed our children. If you think about the implications of how quickly modern humans’ jaws have changed just in the past few hundred years, it’s a frightening thought. As our faces get smaller and our brains get bigger, what will we look like in 2000 years? Here’s a thought .

What do you think about Kramer’s article?

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