Dental indicators of ancient dietary patterns: dental analysis in archaeology

Br Dent J. 2014 May;216(9):529-35. doi: 10.1038/sj.bdj.2014.353.


What can the study of ancient teeth tell us about the dietary habits of our ancestors? Diet plays a prominent role in the organisation and evolution of human cultures and an increasingly diverse array of analytical techniques are available to help reconstruct diet in ancient populations. Dental palaeopathology is particularly important as it can provide direct evidence of the type of diet an individual consumed during life. Heavy occlusal tooth wear is the most frequent condition recognisable and an examination of both macro and microscopic patterns of wear can establish the differences between the hard fibrous diet typical of a hunter-gatherer, and a diet primarily consisting of softer plant foods consumed by an agriculturist. The distributions of trace elements and stable isotopes in food webs make it possible to use them as natural tracers of foodstuffs. Through a consideration of photosynthetic pathways, the ratios of the different stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen can determine which specific groups of plants and animals were dominant in the food chains of various populations - a fact that has been used to trace the spread of agriculture in ancient civilisations.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Archaeology / methods*
  • Dental Calculus / history
  • Dental Caries / history
  • Diet / history*
  • History, Ancient
  • Humans
  • Paleodontology / methods*
  • Periodontal Diseases / history
  • Tooth / chemistry
  • Tooth Wear / history
  • Trace Elements / analysis


  • Trace Elements