So an archaeologist walks into the dentist’s…

Example of dental x-rays (Copyright Wikipedia)

Example of dental x-rays (Copyright Wikipedia)

It sounds like the beginning of a very bad joke, doesn’t it? Thankfully for you it is actually the start of what I thought was a rather entertaining series of events.

It began when I decided to brave a new dental surgery a little while ago, which had been prompted by another session of ‘grading’ the wear on my teeth in my best osteo fashion. Unfortunately I knew this would result in some registration fees, but I was still fairly excited about the x-rays and the opportunity to examine my teeth in a way standing in front of a mirror would not provide. But the dilemma of how to approach the subject without creeping out the poor receptionist taking the x-rays was something I hadn’t quite managed to figure out by the time I sat down in the chair.

As I’m sure you can imagine, my research topic is not exactly the safest topic of conversation for the dinner table so I am always very cautious about discussing my research in much depth with new people. I always get a “wow, really?!” and then I have to decode their facial expression to decide if it is a look of intrigue, confusion, or sheer terror, and then assess how to continue the conversation.

As it turned out, the receptionist was incredibly excited by my confession that I was an archaeologist, and we ended up having an incredibly in depth conversation about my work. I returned several times in the next couple of months to have some work done, and each time I would arrive and found myself being quizzed by the receptionist, the dentist, and the assistant about what I was doing next. We had a great discussion about Neanderthal teeth, and I discovered that the receptionist probably knew far more about teeth in the Palaeolithic than I could ever hope to remember.

Neanderthal teeth (Copyright Discovery News)

Neanderthal teeth (Copyright Discovery News)

I am doing some research on Neanderthal dentition, as there are a number of sites where the only Neanderthal remains on the site are in the form of teeth (both adult and juvenile). As part of building a database of all Neanderthal remains I am aiming to examine every piece of Neanderthal found, including their teeth, but I won’t go into this in too much detail. The juvenile teeth are likely to have merely fallen out during the natural process of growing up, but the adult teeth may reveal more information about their lives and their funerary practices (watch this space…).

So upon my final visit I presented the receptionist with a gift – a journal article which I could only describe as the beginning of the bible for Neanderthal dentition [1]. Apparently this was an ideal present, although it did somewhat terrify the elderly patients sat quietly in the waiting room.

I turned out to be an interesting patient not only for my occupation, but also for my unusual dental characteristics. To my frustration, and that of anyone trying to take a photograph of me smiling, I have two upper incisors missing. These would be described as “congenitally missing maxillary lateral incisors” – or to you and me, two of the teeth at the top/front of your mouth that just never decided to appear. Apparently congenitally missing teeth is a trait found in those of Northwestern European origin, and affects less than 10% of the population with most missing maxillary lateral incisors [2]. It is something that most people I meet would never notice, but unfortunately is blindingly obvious to most of my osteoarchaeologist friends who are desperate to ask about it.

Unfortunately the work I had to have done was not on my congenitally missing teeth, and although I’ve been desperate to have work done to have false ones put in since I was little, I think I’ve actually become quite fond of my peculiar trait. I remember reading about how to record dentition in my osteoarchaeology lectures and I thought “ooh, congenitally missing teeth… bet I’ll never see one of those in one of my skeletons!” and it didn’t really occur to me until I brushed my teeth that I was one of those odd people. And from then on, I felt it was my duty to keep my teeth to provide an osteoarchaeologist in the future with some excitement to brighten up their day.

I must confess, I think I’m rather looking forward to my next dental check up. But I guess that means I have to get my head around this paper and revise before my next visit in January… better get cracking!


[1] Le Cabec et al (2013) “Anterior tooth root morphology and size in Neanderthals: Taxonomic and functional implications“, Journal of Human Evolution 64 (2013) 169 – 193

[2] Robertsson, S. & Mohlin, B. (2000) “The congenitally missing upper lateral incisor. A retrospective study of orthdontic space closure versus restorative treatment“, European Journal of Orthodontics 22 (2000) 697 – 7100.

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