The Wisdom Of Teeth

Ancient human teeth can tell us a lot. Hidden inside each set are clues about their owner’s behavior and ancestry plus hints about what really made up the paleo diet. Shara Bailey, associate professor of anthropology at New York University, reads the topography of teeth to better understand the origins and lineages of humans. You can even test your own teeth to see if you have the same bumps and grooves as your ancestors.

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Try it at home!

Locate your lower molars using your tongue. These are the back two or three teeth on each side of your lower jaw. Molars feel more square than your other teeth. Use your tongue to feel the cusps, or bumps, on your lower molars.

Focus on one tooth, try to feel how many cusps you have on that tooth. How many can you feel?

Take a closer look by making an impression of your lower teeth by biting into a soft, moldable material. A couple options are:

  • Dental wax
  • Mouth Guard
  • Soft candy that doesn’t stick to your tooth, like Starburst, Laffy Taffy, or Circus Peanuts
  • A foam tray or plate (you can cut into 2 in squares)

If using dental wax, soft candy, or a foam plate/tray, place the material over one of your lower molars and press it down. Gently remove from your tooth and check out the impression! (If using a mouth guard, follow the package instructions to make an impression of your lower teeth)

Go further and check your other molars. Is the number of cusps consistent in all of your molars? Compare your tooth impression to family members and friends.

What do the number of cusps on your teeth say about your ancestry?

According to dental anthropologists, the number of cusps can help them determine the ancestry of a Homo sapien specimen.

  • Four cusps might indicate European or Indian ancestry
  • Most people have five cusps
  • Six cusps might indicate Asian ancestry
  • Cusp seven on the tongue side of the molar might indicate Sub-Saharan ancestry

Molar images provided by Shara Bailey.


Produced and Narrated by Emily V. Driscoll
Filmed by Jeff Nash
Music by Audio Network
Additional Video by POND5
Images by ©2015 Kaifu et al,Lee Roger Berger research team, Peter Brown, Elsevier
Cicero Moraes (Arc-Team) et alii, Daniele Panetta, CNR Institute Physiology
Margherita Mussi, Patrizia Gioia, Fabio Negrino, Thilo Parg
Rosino, Wellcome Images

Thanks to Cara Biega and James Devitt

Meet the Producer

About Emily Driscoll

Emily Driscoll is a science documentary producer in New York, New York. Her production company is BonSci Films.