At the end of the original Planet of the Apes (1968), Charlton Heston’s character Taylor tries to reconstruct the past lives of human ancestors using objects found in a cave, including a set of dentures. Although these objects are useful, we know today that if you truly want to understand a people from the past, you have to consider their teeth. Because they’re strong and mostly mineral, teeth are natural fossils and tend to be among the best preserved parts of remains.
When future people attempt to reconstruct our society, they will look to our teeth to learn about us. But what will our teeth tell these people of the dim and distant future?
One of the easiest things for them to read from our teeth will be our diet. They will know from the wear on our teeth (or lack thereof) that we ate a lot of processed foods that were quite soft. They will also know that we tended to eat a lot of meat as well as a lot of sugar.
Our teeth will speak to the problem of highly acidic sugary beverages, with their combination of inducing cavities and causing erosion of teeth. Depending on their samples, they may identify our problematic relationship with food through the marks that eating disorders like bulimia leave on our teeth.
But the news won’t be all bad. They’ll read from our teeth that we tended to have very good nutrition, overall, and that few children experienced malnutrition when growing up.
Another thing they’ll read from our teeth is how widespread oral disease was in our day. They will see that about half of people in the US have gum disease. They will be able to use genetic sequencing to see the distribution of oral bacteria, including the existence of some dangerous bacteria.
Of course, we don’t generally mummify our remains, so they won’t be able to tell that gum disease had a disastrous effect on our overall health, including our risk of heart disease and cancer. This is something that has been seen in egyptian mummies from 3500 years ago.
When looking at oral disease, they will see that we had generally high rates of tooth decay. But if they compare our teeth with remains of those a century ago, they will see that the levels of decay are markedly decreased, even though our consumption of sugar has nothing but increased over the past 100 years.
The reason why our decay has decreased even though decay-causing sugar consumption remains high will also be easy to see: modern Americans have much higher access to dentists and dentistry than any society before us. And the level of preventive dental care is unprecedented, from fluoridated water to fluoridated toothpaste to regular dental visits.
The marks of regular dental care will be clear on our teeth. There will be signs of regular dental cleanings removing the hardened plaque from our teeth. Although the removal of hardened plaque will eliminate much of the data about oral disease, it will give evidence of the tools of modern dentistry. Future people will also see the transition of our dental materials, from metal amalgam to composite tooth colored fillings to more attractive and durable ceramic fillings.
And speaking of attractiveness, future people will see that modern Americans had greater access to cosmetic dentistry than people in the past.
Egyptians sometimes used cosmetic dentistry to restore the teeth of people for the afterlife. The Maya gave jeweled teeth to the social elite, and sometimes even replaced missing teeth with shells. But at no time was cosmetic dentistry so available to nearly everyone. From simple teeth whitening to the dramatic restoration of teeth with dental implants, most people can make the investment in cosmetic dentistry.
And most people do, because something else future archaeologists will be able to tell is how much we value smiles. Whatever print materials survive will be full of images of people smiling. In homes, archaeologists will uncover our collection of people smiling.
It’s hard to know what they will infer about us from the prevalence of smiling imagery and our emphasis on dentistry, but it would not be a surprise to them that nearly all of us consider a smile a vital social and professional asset.
If you are looking for a dentist who can help you maintain a beautiful and healthy smile both for today and for the future, please call (949) 551-5902 today for an appointment with an Orange County dentist at Rice Dentistry in Irvine.