History of oral health: Teeth as tools

When you hear the phrase “teeth as tools,” you might think of critters like the beaver. Almost everyone knows that beavers use their mighty chompers to gnaw wood into pieces they can use to construct dams. But did you know that there’s a long history of humans using their teeth as tools as well?

From prehistory to the modern day, humans have been used their teeth in ingenious — and dangerous! — ways, both as tools in and of themselves and to help make other tools. Let’s take a look at some of the more remarkable evidence of teeth as tools over the millennia.

From clever cavepeople...

Ancient people generally didn’t get as many cavities as we do in the modern era, but that doesn’t mean that their teeth didn’t get worn down. A Neanderthal male unearthed in Kurdistan showed severe wear on his teeth. Why? Well, this particular specimen was missing his right arm from the elbow on down, so scientists theorize that he used his teeth to compensate.

But what did early humans do with their teeth, exactly? Scientists think they were most commonly used to either support their hands in grasping objects or else in softening wood and plant fibers and animal hides so they could be processed into more useful forms. The evidence for these uses lies in scratch marks on the tooth surface. Up and down scratch marks are caused by biting into food, but horizontal scratch marks likely come from grasping objects that were being tugged back and forth.

Did you know? Scientists estimate that only 1 to 5% of ancient hunter-gatherers had cavities. For comparison, as many as 85% of some populations with agricultural systems have them!

...To the backyard barbecue

Using teeth as tools may sound like something resigned to history, but it’s something that humans continue to do to this day. Ask yourself how many times you’ve held a grocery bag in your mouth while trying to get your front door open or pulled a tag off a piece of clothing by biting and tearing it.

Unfortunately, as the wear and tear on prehistoric humans’ teeth shows, using your teeth as tools isn’t very good for them. Here are some of the common “teeth as tools” behavior that can damage your teeth, and what you can use instead.

• Don’t open bottles or cans with your teeth. This party trick can easily lead to a cracked tooth. It’s also a good way to scrape the enamel off your teeth. Finally, if something went wrong and a glass bottle broke, your mouth could be severely cut up! Instead of using your teeth, use a bottle opener.

• Don’t bite your nails. This can be an easy habit to form, but it’s not great for your teeth. Not only can chewing on your nails wear down your teeth or push them out of alignment, but you could also introduce germs into your mouth or cut your gums with nail fragments. Finally, it’s easy to leave your nails looking ragged by chewing on them. Instead of chewing on your nails, use nail clippers to trim them. If you find that you chew on your nails because of a habit or anxiety, try to address the underlying cause.

• Don’t use your teeth to hold things. Sometimes it’s worth making two trips from the car to the kitchen, if it means saving your teeth a trip to the dentist. If you have issues with carrying items, you can use tools like shopping bag holders to help you carry more bags or hand strengtheners to develop your grip strength.

• Don’t open packages with your teeth. Whether you’re tearing open plastic packaging or a bag of chips, this can cause enamel damage or even pull a loose tooth free. Instead of opening items with your teeth, look for easy-to-open packages or use tools like knives or scissors.

• Don’t crack nuts or seed open with your teeth. Even natural items like pistachios or sunflowers can still cause harm to your teeth. They evolved to be tough and hard to protect their contents, after all. Rather than using your teeth to open up nuts and seed, get pre-shelled nuts or use a nutcracker.

Using your teeth as tools may be human nature, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for your teeth. Asking your teeth to take on tasks that they weren’t designed for is asking for trouble. By being mindful of what you put in your mouth, keeping up your oral hygiene and eating a healthy diet, you can keep your smile strong and healthy for years to come.