Culinary Practices And The Modern Human Bite

Dr. Weston Price showed that cultures that change from native to modern, Western diets produce jaws with more dental crowding, crooked teeth and more cavities. Others have shown that softer foods and even bottle-feeding can also promote dental crowding. Smaller jaws can lead to smaller airways, leading to a number of health problems due to poor sleep. Here’s an interesting perspective on how modern man’s bites have changed simply by eating in a more civilized manner: using table knives and forks. 

Staff writer for the New Yorker magazine Jane Kramer reviews a book by Bee Wilson, “Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook And Eat.” On the third page of the online version, there a section where the author describes the work of American anthropologist Charles Loring Brace, who specialized in the evolution of hominid teeth. He dates the onset of the modern Western overbite at around 250 years. Prior to this human incisors lined up edge to edge, like a guillotine. Then all of a sudden, human jaws, especially in the more civilized areas (who used forks and knives to cut meat into bite-sized pieces), started to develop an overbite. This change happened too quickly to be as a result of evolution. Here’s an excerpt from Kramer’s article:

By the late eighteenth century in Europe, people were slicing their food into bite-size morsels and carrying them to their mouths with forks—those formerly weird things, Wilson calls them. And they hardly needed to chew such tiny pieces, which in most cases were already softened by pounding, overcooking, or long, gentle braisings. At the same time, the modern overbite began to appear prominently in upper-class Western European jaws. Do not confuse this with the seriously inconvenient condition known to the world as buck teeth (without which we would have no orthodontists, and no mortified adolescents with mouthfuls of rubber bands and wire braces). Wilson’s modern overbite refers to “the way our top layer of incisors hangs over the bottom layer, like a lid on a box,” as she nicely puts it, and is “the ideal human occlusion” for the way we now eat. Why this happened and how long it took to happen is open to some debate, but it’s clear that until it happened most humans had the bite of other primates—“where the top incisors clash against the bottom ones, like a guillotine blade.”

Wilson’s favorite theory comes from the American physical anthropologist Charles Loring Brace, a specialist in the evolution of hominid teeth. In 1977, Brace published an article that put the age of the Western overbite at no more than two hundred and fifty years—which is to say that flatware and, with it, a significant change in how we chewed were all it took for the edge-to-edge occlusion that we inherited from the Neanderthals to be replaced by the bite we now call normal. Brace was haunted by overbites. He had long assumed them to be an incremental and selective evolutionary change that began with agriculture and the consumption of grains. But the jaws he studied, on his way to building a database on the evolution of hominid teeth—apparently the biggest in the world—changed his mind. The transformation he’d seen in those eighteenth-century-gentlemen jaws was too abrupt, and too radical, to qualify as evolution, especially given the rapidity with which it then followed the spread of flatware into the middle classes, in the nineteenth century. In 1914, in the run-up to war with Germany, a stainless-steel alloy—developed to prevent corrosion in gun barrels—went on sale in Sheffield, England. Once stainless appeared on the country’s dinner tables, the guillotine bite all but disappeared. 

There have been further significant milestones in how to eat our food, what foods we eat, as well as how we feed our children. If you think about the implications of how quickly modern humans’ jaws have changed just in the past few hundred years, it’s a frightening thought. As our faces get smaller and our brains get bigger, what will we look like in 2000 years? Here’s a thought.

What do you think about Kramer’s article?

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2 thoughts on “Culinary Practices And The Modern Human Bite

  1. Fascinating. The more I learn about modern dental development and occlusion, the more astonished I am that the conventional wisdom on these issues seems to be extremely uninformed as well as entrenched in the faulty genetic position.

  2. It was Kramer’s essay that first allowed me to become aware of this evolutionary development of the modern human jaw. I became so intrigued by this that I did my own research and wrote a position essay article for an English class I am taking. I think the Kramer did a great job in exposing alot of Charles Loring Brace’s theories and discoveries. One thing that Kramer doesn’t elborate on that her source Bee Wilson does, is the method that Charles Loring Brace labeled as the “stuff and cut” eating method that most people used before forks were invented. The individual would grasp the food in one hand and “clamp” the food into the mouth. They would then separate the hunks of food from their mouth with either there hand or a knife. Brace argued that the incisors (or canine teeth) are misnamed. In Latin the word incisor (Incidere) means “to cut”, but Brace says that the incisors true purpose isn’t “to cut”, but “to clamp” food into the mouth.
    “It is my suspicion”, he wrote “that if the incisors are used in such a manner several times a day from the time they first erupt, they will become positioned so they normally occlude from “edge to edge.”
    Once people starting cutting their food into small pieces and using a forks and spoons and other utensils the clamping function of incisors greatly diminished and the incisors continued to erupt until the ‘top layer no longer meets the bottom layer’ creating an overbite.
    I don’t see why this would be such a far fetched idea? Our teeth and bite move slowly overtime. This is true in everyone’s case and some move more than others and without firm pressure of the constant grinding and shredding of food, I think it makes sense that the jaw would change.Why over 250+ years would this not change with the development of eating a completely different way and with a different tool?