Teeth are brittle and highly susceptible to cracking. We propose that observations of such cracking can be used as a diagnostic tool for predicting bite force and inferring tooth function in living and fossil mammals. Laboratory tests on model tooth structures and extracted human teeth in simulated biting identify the principal fracture modes in enamel. Examination of museum specimens reveals the presence of similar fractures in a wide range of vertebrates, suggesting that cracks extended during ingestion or mastication. The use of ‘fracture mechanics' from materials engineering provides elegant relations for quantifying critical bite forces in terms of characteristic tooth size and enamel thickness. The role of enamel microstructure in determining how cracks initiate and propagate within the enamel (and beyond) is discussed. The picture emerges of teeth as damage-tolerant structures, full of internal weaknesses and defects and yet able to contain the expansion of seemingly precarious cracks and fissures within the enamel shell. How the findings impact on dietary pressures forms an undercurrent of the study.