New analysis of fossil evidence uses the evolution of teeth to track the story of Mankind. Scientists believe the new findings could improve our understanding of the connection between modern humans and the fossil record of human ancestry.
Experts have tried for many years to learn more about human evolution through the analysis of human fossils, connecting the modern human with that of other hominin species. It has not been an easy process, as scientists have not had much physical evidence of hominin species to work with.
The most commonly discovered hominin fossils, though, are teeth. This makes some sense, since we know that teeth are the hardest part of the human body.
Lead study author Alistair Evans explains, “Teeth are central to how a fossil ancestor lived, and can tell us about which species they belonged to, how they are related to other species, what they ate, and how quickly or slowly they developed during childhood.”
The evolutionary biologist from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia goes on to say, “Teeth can tell us a lot about the lives of our ancestors, and how they evolved over the last 7 million years. What makes modern humans different from our fossil relatives? Palaeontologists have worked for decades to interpret these fossils, and looked for new ways to extract more information from teeth.”
Evans also discusses how the new research challenges the presently accepted view that there has been great variation in the way our teeth evolved from our closest relatives. He tells, “Our new study shows that the pattern is a lot simpler than we first thought – human evolution was much more limited,” using comparisons between the Homo genus and the australopith species (with specimens like the famous African hominin Lucy).
He says that even though they have found both groups follow a similar pattern they are also, still, slightly different. “There seems to be a key difference between the two groups of hominins – perhaps one of the things that define our genus, Homo,” he says, adding that what is most exciting is that scientists now have more data that can help to predict the size of the fossil teeth missing from the human evolutionary record.
He explains, “Sometimes we find only a few teeth in a fossil. With our new insight, we can reliably estimate how big the missing teeth were. The early hominin Ardipithecus is a good example – the second milk molar has never been found, but we can now predict how big it was.”