TEETH: Clues To Your Ancestry
Your Teeth Say A Lot
My ten year old daughter had her first appointment with an orthodontist. As the orthodontist peered into my daughter’s mouth, she said “Wow!” It was a good wow. I knew immediately she had discovered my daughter’s “special tooth.”
Several years ago, when my daughter lost her baby teeth and grew new adult teeth, we noticed one in particular. The right lateral incisor (next to the canine) on the top row is shaped like a T when viewed from below. From the front, the tooth appears normal, but it has another point, or ridge, perpendicular to the front. She has an incisor which has not yet come down, so we have often wondered if it, too, will be special.
The orthodontist said, “You have something I have not seen before, except in books. In dental school, we learned about the talon cusp, which is what you have. Native Americans had these large-ridged incisors and I am guessing you have some Native American ancestry.” I nodded. The orthodontist told my daughter that she did indeed have a special tooth and that it was an honor to see it.
My husband’s great great grandmother was Harriett, a woman born into the Cherokee tribe. Her daughter was Ode Wampu. My own great grandmother was an Oklahoma-born Cherokee (they called her Fanny). Through years of research we are well versed in our ancestry and I have always embraced the multi-cultural facet of our family. As a child my own family lived on a 200 acre farm in the fertile plains of Indiana. This was once home to a Paleo Indian community, and later home to the Mississippian tribe. We found over 100 artifacts including spear points, arrow heads, nutting stones, and rough outs. My brother and I once found a petrified tooth inside one of the many caves on our property. I didn’t make a connection until now.
Dental anthropology is a fascinating field of study that uses dental remains to determine, among other things, the race and heritage of a person. I knew teeth were important indicators of our heritage, but curiosity prompted me to do some research. My daughter has a talon cusp, also called an eagle talon cusp. Less than 1% of the global population have this cusp. (A variation of this ridge is the “Uto-Aztecan” bulge (for lack of a better word) on the upper molars. These are only found among Native American Indians - mostly in Arizona!) The ridges and bumps described are prominent in people belonging to the Eskimos, Aleutians, Native American Indians, and some Chinese. These races are considered by dental anthropologists to extend from the Siberian population many centuries ago. Stamford University once wrote an article about this “mutation” and it said,
“…an extremely rare mutation of the Y chromosome may be a genetic marker unique to the people who migrated to the Americas 30,000 years ago…This mutation exists only in Indian populations in North and South America, as well as Eskimos.”
Other dental traits indicative of Native American ancestry include shovel teeth (which I have!). The roots of these teeth are double the size of the tooth. The tooth itself is thinner and concave on the backside, with a scooped appearance, like a shovel. These shovel teeth can also have ridges. This feature can be mild or exaggerated. The roots are strong and often run deep into the jawbone, even attaching to the bone itself. Winged incisors (front teeth) are also seen among Eskimos and Native Americans. They are called winged incisors because they grow side by side to form a V pattern. Another trait my ancestors could have had was a three-rooted molar instead of one with two roots.
My Native American ancestors were not the only people with distinct dental traits. Europeans have an additional bump on the outside of their upper molars. This bulge is called a Carabelli Cusp, named after the hard-working dentist of the Austrian Emperor Franz. The Cusp of Carabelli is a heritable feature, so its presence indicates European ancestry. Europeans have nice and simple teeth – straight in form and flat; no shovels or ridges. Their teeth are smooth on the front and the back. Molars belonging to the European community have two roots per first molar instead of three. Europeans have some of the smallest teeth in the world.
Aboriginal tribes of Australia (both current and prehistoric), and Africans/African Americans have the largest teeth in the world. They are also the thickest and strongest teeth in the running – with a very ample layer of enamel. Is it any wonder the best, brightest smiles in the world belonged to people such as Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and so many more? As a Caucasian, I must admit there were many times when a double layer of enamel might have kept a drill out of my mouth!
The Texas Archeological Research laboratory has been studying prehistoric dental remains to trace populations in North America. Forensic scientists rely on teeth when no other means of identification can be used to find the name of a victim. I once read that a scientist can determine where you were born just by examining a tooth – that the tooth holds a trace amount of minerals from water you drank as a youth! Whether that is true or not, I do understand how important teeth can be as we recognize who we are in a long line of ancestors. We can spend a lot of money on our smiles, and use those smiles to communicate, laugh, love, speak and open verbal doors to other cultures and experiences. As a Dutch-Irish compilation, I am delighted to know my Cherokee roots are still there (pun intended) – still evident in my smile. I am proud of each part that makes me a whole, and maybe my red hair goes just as well with my shovel incisors.
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