Course Gleanings

Making Connections While Brushing My Teeth

I usually take multiple courses at any one time, and while this can be challenging from a time-management standpoint, I’m often rewarded by making cross-disciplinary connections that I otherwise might miss, and of the lectures from one class reinforcing material I learned in another.

Two of the courses I’m currently taking are Introduction to Forensic Science from Nanyang Technological University (Coursera) and Introduction to Human Evolution from Wellesley College (EdX). I hadn’t given it a lot of forethought to how much the study of human evolution relies on forensic methods beforehand, but I get to think about it plenty now.

Last week in both courses we were studying aspects of skeletal anatomy, dentition, and decomposition.  I’ve never been great at keeping track of the names and numbers of each of the teeth in my mouth, but after comparing jaw fossils of apes and hominids, and thinking about the ways that dental records can be used to identify deceased individuals I’m finally getting the hang of it.

And of course I think about it now every time I brush my teeth: How would my teeth look to an archaeologist or anthropologist thousands of years from now? How difficult a time would a forensic scientist have identifying my dead body from my dental records? (I suppose the latter question should creep me out, but it doesn’t. The fun of the mental exercise distracts me from any handwringing about death.)

When I was 10, I had my four first bicuspids removed because of crowding (two on my upper jaw and two on my lower jaw), and later had all my wisdom teeth. After spending an afternoon looking at complete sets of ape teeth, my mouth is quite a disappointment. So few teeth, and so small!

Since bicuspid removal is more common in the United States than most other parts of the world, the forensic scientist could make a good guess at my nationality as well as my socioeconomic class during childhood.

And the archaeologist may conjecture that, in a society where teeth were so expendable, there must have been a heavy reliance on processed foods.

Both would look at my flat canines and say, “Wow, that one sure ground its teeth. Or ate a steady diet of rocks. Probably the former.”

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