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Cover for The Tales Teeth Tell

The Tales Teeth Tell

Development, Evolution, Behavior

Tanya M. Smith


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What teeth can tell us about human evolution, development, and behavior.

Our teeth have intriguing stories to tell. These sophisticated time machines record growth, diet, and evolutionary history as clearly as tree rings map a redwood's lifespan. Each day of childhood is etched into tooth crowns and roots—capturing birth, nursing history, environmental clues, and illnesses. The study of ancient, fossilized teeth sheds light on how our ancestors grew up, how we evolved, and how prehistoric cultural transitions continue to affect humans today. In The Tales Teeth Tell, biological anthropologist Tanya Smith offers an engaging and surprising look at what teeth tell us about the evolution of primates—including our own uniqueness.

Humans' impressive set of varied teeth provides a multipurpose toolkit honed by the diet choices of our mammalian ancestors. Fossil teeth, highly resilient because of their substantial mineral content, are all that is left of some long-extinct species. Smith explains how researchers employ painstaking techniques to coax microscopic secrets from these enigmatic remains. Counting tiny daily lines provides a way to estimate age that is more powerful than any other forensic technique. Dental plaque—so carefully removed by dental hygienists today—records our ancestors' behavior and health in the form of fossilized food particles and bacteria, including their DNA. Smith also traces the grisly origins of dentistry, reveals that the urge to pick one's teeth is not unique to humans, and illuminates the age-old pursuit of “dental art.” The book is generously illustrated with original photographs, many in color.

Praise For The Tales Teeth Tell: Development, Evolution, Behavior

The Tales Teeth Tell is an accessible, personal, often funny and occasionally controversial look into the murk of human evolution...[the book] is chock full of fascinating science, but it's also the personal story of a woman of science immersed in her work.—Shelf Awareness

In a time when people are more interested than ever in where they came from, The Tales Teeth Tell gives readers a way to look beyond a DNA cheek swab for information about their pasts, both recent and deep....By the end of her tooth-centric tour through childhood, the distant past, and modern cultures, Smith will have convinced you that your teeth are time machines.

Massive Science

The Tales Teeth Tell might make you more impressed by what's in your mouth — or put a smile on your face with its weird facts about primate dentistry and the shrinking grins of modern-day humans. The book is written by an academic and has plenty of notes. But it's accessible to science-minded readers.

Washington Post

Biological anthropologist Tanya Smith drills into what disinterred teeth, as “sophisticated time machines”, can tell us about individuals, our species and the deep past. Her study — technically chewy yet thoroughly engaging — examines the human story through dental development, evolution and related behaviour, interlacing vivid anecdotes from her scientific career. The result is a mix of fascinating findings at all scales, from scanning electron microscopy displaying the exquisite geometry of enamel prisms, to toothpick use among hominins some 2 million years ago.


A mix of fascinating findings at all scales, from scanning electron microscopy displaying the exquisite geometry of enamel prisms, to toothpick use among hominins some 2 million years ago.


Smith's writing is informative, absorbing, and manages to elegantly cover a wide range of topics.

The Inquisitive Biologist

The MIT Press, 9780262038713, 296pp.

Publication Date: October 23, 2018

About the Author

Tanya M. Smith is Professor in the Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. She has held a professorship at Harvard University, and fellowships at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.