Book review: ‘Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet and Human Origins’

Simply opening your mouth can give you an insight into your own personal history, and that of humankind

“There’s something visceral about our teeth,” wrote Peter Ungar, a distinguished professor at the University of Arkansas and author of ‘Evolution’s Bite. A Story of Teeth, Diet and Human Origins’ (Princeton University Press, £22.95, ISBN 9780691160535), in his previous book on the same subject, ‘Teeth: A Very Short Introduction’, where he also quotes George Cuvier, the 19th-century naturalist who allegedly said: “Show me your teeth, I will tell you who you are”. This strikes me as a paraphrase of the old Russian proverb: ‘Show me your friend – and I will tell you who you are.”

Well, there is certainly something visceral about this book, in which Ungar metaphorises teeth as “our bridge to the past” (although in my case, the dental bridges in my mouth used to be very concrete and not at all metaphorical), and asserts that “we hold in our mouths the legacy of our evolution”. He also uses a rather brilliant pun – ‘foodprints’ – in describing our teeth and even makes it the title of one of the book’s chapters. That pun embodies in itself the whole meaning of this fascinating 235-page-long book: our teeth are moulded by what we eat, and by looking at them we can discover a lot about human and animal evolution and development.

I hope Professor Ungar will forgive me, but my own gruesome experience as a lifelong dental sufferer gives me the right to be somewhat facetious about the subject of the book, at the end of which he urges the reader to “open your mouth and look in a mirror”. He means looking at your teeth, of course. Well, for some this is easier said than done... I am doing so as I write, and what do I see? Two slim rows of brand new implants, manufactured by the SmileSavers clinic in Budapest and put in place by Dr Attila Kaman, one of Europe’s most distinguished implantologists, who had already installed over 25,000 of them before mine. Nothing is ‘visceral’ about my beautiful new teeth, made of porcelain and firmly built into my gums with the help of new orthodontic technologies known as ‘all on six’ (in the upper jaw), and ‘all on four’ (in the lower).

So, what do my implants reveal about my own personal history and evolution?

If you can read them properly, they will tell you that I grew up in the Soviet Union, where the state of dentistry was somewhat ahead of that in ancient Egypt, but not much. By the age of 17, I had experienced so much dental suffering that it would have been equivalent to the population of a middle-size English town. The most common method of dental treatment in the USSR was tooth extraction. My brutally removed incisors, canines, premolars and molars had been scattered all over the former Soviet Empire – from Kaliningrad to Blagoveshchensk. I had them taken out with pliers (no anaesthetic), knocked out with a hammer and a chisel and pulled out with bare (and not very clean) dentists’ hands. No wonder that one feeble-spirited London dentist fainted after a quick glimpse of my mouth cavity, which used to resemble a railway junction, with gaping tunnels, cavities and iron bridges criss-crossing and merging on different levels, and with my unfortunate permanently scratched tongue dashing back and forth among them like an outdated steam engine.

To quote Ungar again, “Teeth matter”. But you can only appreciate the full meaning of this truism after you lose them all. ‘Evolution’s Bite’ made me feel anew the full enormity of my dental loss. It also brought about a huge relief at the thought that my personal dental evolution, with the accompanying excruciating pain, is over forever.

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