Friday, August 21, 2020

Human Teeth, Civilization, and Incels

From an utterly weird article by William Brennan on incels and orthodontics, I extract this bit about the history of our teeth:

On a Friday in August, I met with an anthropologist named Janet Monge in a ground-floor classroom at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. Monge is a warm and voluble person, with a mane of gray-white hair and an easy smile. Since the early 1990s, she has been the keeper of one of the world’s largest and most geographically diverse collections of ancient skulls, housed at the University of Pennsylvania. The specimens had originally been gathered by the physician Samuel Morton in the 19th century. Monge noted that Morton collected the skulls for racist purposes, measuring the projection of his specimens’ jaws in an attempt to assess their level of civilizational enlightenment. The same large, forward-grown jaws the Mews prize as signs of health and beauty, Morton disdained as markers of inherent cultural and biological inferiority. 

The Morton specimens sat in cases all around, peering out at us with enormous, empty sockets and gleaming teeth. In a plastic container, Monge had placed skulls from the Middle East, West Africa, Eastern Europe and beyond. When I asked her if she’d ever seen an ancient specimen with crooked teeth, she didn’t hesitate: “No, not one. Ever.” Most of the skulls in the Penn collection date from a 40,000-year period starting late in the Stone Age and ending around 300 years ago, yet “they all have an edge-to-edge bite,” “robust” jaws and “perfect” occlusion, Monge said.

But then, in specimens from people who lived two centuries ago or less, Monge noted a striking change: The edge-to-edge bite completely disappears, and malocclusion suddenly runs rampant. She pointed to a skull on a nearby shelf — that of a woman who lived in 19th-century North America. Unlike the ancient skulls, this postindustrial woman’s maxilla was crinkled and small; the teeth that remained sat crammed together. “I always told my students, ‘Something happened 200 years ago and nobody has an edge-to-edge bite anymore — and I have no freaking idea why,’” Monge said. She took the skull of a preindustrial Siberian man out of her container and clicked the mandible into place. The bone was thick; the teeth met so neatly that they appeared pulled from an Invisalign ad. Monge laughed, her open mouth revealing a pair of missing molars. She cradled the skull in her hand. “Isn’t that just perfect?”

Both Brennan and Monge seem not to have done enough research to learn that many people have wondered about exactly this change in our teeth, including me. 

In 2013 when I last wrote about the impact of modern diets on our teeth I mused, "Perhaps when the Undomesticated Men finally make their appearance in the mountains of Idaho, they will raise their children without forks and make them gnaw their meat off the bone, so their teeth don't go soft and over-civilized." I had no idea that many men were already doing this, and that within five years "mewing" –trying to force your teeth back into a Paleolithic posture – would be a fad endorsed by various YouTube personalities and particularly common among "incels" who think women won't have them because their faces are too weak and unmasculine.


G. Verloren said...

The two hundred year cutoff seems to fit with the early advent of more modern diets and medicine, which in turn allowed people who previously would not have survived to adulthood to start leading full lives and reproduce.

I imagine the culprit is some genetic mutation that is somehow coincidental to other factors that previously would have usually been fatal, but no longer are, and it crept in and became pervasive because it was no longer selected against. Crooked teeth might have just been genetically rare previously.

The only other explanation I can imagine would be some sort of environmental factor that is distinctly modern, but I struggle to imagine what that might be, that remains consistent across the past two centuries.

Rincon said...

Please consider the lack of Vit K2 in the modern diet. See the link below for a discussion of K2 in skeletal and dental formation. In the 1920s, Dr. Weston Price DDS hypothesized a connection between dental malformation and the absence of fat soluable vitamins through observational studies. It is unclear if there is a scientific consensus on the connection, but the theory seems to be widely accepted in medicine.

G. Verloren said...


Historically, there would certainly have been people who had limited diets which provided little to no menaquinone intake. It is primarily found in animal livers, and bacterially fermented foods, notably cheeses.

For example, I would expect to find historical Central and South American populations which were relatively lacking in menaquinone (due to a lack of native animal husbandry, combined with little to no hunting within certain areas or culture). Perhaps some could have been obtained from fermented beverages such as chicha (corn beer), but I am unsure if so, or if it would be a significant amount.

My point is, a relative lack of menaquinone intake can't ONLY be a modern occurrence, and we ought to find the same crooked teeth at other points in time anywhere where people had a diet with little in the way of animal tissues and bacterially fermented foods.