I’m almost done reading a fascinating book called, Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, by Bee Wilson.
There’s an interesting section on development of cutting tools for preparing meals over the past few centuries. The author goes into great detail about the social, economic, political and technological factors that made cutlery more accessible to the well-off and the aristocracy.
What caught my attention was her mentioning of scholarly work in the anthropology literature proposing that up until only recently did modern humans have a natural overbite, where the upper front incisors rest in front of the lower incisors. Normally, humans’ incisors lined up edge-to-edge. She cites the work of Dr. C. Loring Brace, a biological anthropologist from the University of Michigan who proposed that how we prepared our meals was just as important as what we ate when it comes to the way our teeth formed and are positioned.
Over the years, Brace built up a large database of human teeth. The prevailing theory during his time was that our overbite was the result of the adoption of grains many thousands of years ago, which requires less chewing. However, he discovered that the modern overbite is a relatively recent finding. In Western Europe, Brace found that the change from edge-to-edge to overbite status occurred in the late 18th century, mostly in wealthy people. This was around the time when the well-to-do had access to forks and knives to pre-cut meat before eating.
The poor were using their teeth to clench and rip, tear or cut the meat off the bones. Brace showed that this conversion to an overbite took longer to take hold in the American Colonies when he excavated a grave from a 19th-century insane asylum, prison and work house. He found that 10 out of 15 still had edge-to-edge bites.
Wilson also writes that in China, meat was usually cut up using the multipurpose tou Chinese cleaver before serving to the aristocracy. Pre-chopped foods facilitated eating with chopsticks and was commonplace about 900 years before the knife and fork were used in Europe. Brace found the pickled remains of a young Chinese aristocrat who was found to have an overbite, around the time that chopsticks began to appear. As a result, it is estimated that the overbite was found in China 800 to 1000 years before Europe.
However, Brace found that some peasants still had edge-to-edge bites well into the 20th century. One of Brace’s articles mentions Dr. Weston Price in his book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, who documented changes in occlusion within one generation in isolated cultures after adopting modern, Western diets.
All this makes perfect sense as I recall a story that one of the OR nurses told me about her childhood years growing up in one of the smaller islands in the West Indies. She said that she and her friends used to make fun of rich people because they had crooked teeth.
The invention of eating utensils is just one of many factors that contribute to dental and airway crowding. I described a number of these factors in a past blog post and podcasts in the past. This includes transitioning to softer foods, bottle-feeding, pacifiers, thumb sucking, nasal congestion, and toxins in our food and environment, including fluoride. There’s good evidence that our facial shrinkage is accelerating over the past 50 to 100 years. You can see the difference if you look at celebrities and movie stars’ wider faces in the 1930s to 50s. At this rate, in 10,000 years, our faces will begin to look like aliens.