Human tooth wear, tooth function and cultural variability


  • This is a revision of a manuscript delivered as part of the symposium Teeth as Tools: Some New Dimensions in Dental Anthropology at the annual meetings of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, March 1970.

  • This study was assisted in part by funds from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Washington University and by Biomedical Sciences Support grant FR-07054.


Among primitive peoples dental attrition appears to be a natural phenomenon. Often the degrees and kinds of tooth wear vary from population to population. This variability is possibly related to certain material aspects of culture such as diet, food preparation techniques and tool usage. In order to learn more about these relationships, extensive cross cultural comparisons must be made.

This paper reports on a study of dental attrition among skeletal remains of North American Indians from three areas: California, the Southwest and the Valley of Mexico. A method of comparing worn teeth of these populations was devised so several characteristics of the teeth and supporting bone could be examined by population. This study showed significant differences in type and degree of wear among the three groups as well as differences between sexes within each population.

A positive correlation between tooth wear and cultural factors was found. Dietary specialization and division of labor appear to be responsible for the degree and type of wear found in this sample. Further studies of this type are planned to expand the sample size and, if the new data support these correlations, valuable information about human–environmental relationships can be gained.