How Your Teeth Reveal Clues About Your Ancestry
My Daughter's Talon Cusp
At my ten-year-old daughter's first orthodontic appointment, the orthodontist peered into her mouth and let out a “Wow!” It was a good wow. I knew immediately she had discovered my daughter’s “special tooth."
Several years ago, when my daughter lost her baby teeth and grew new adult teeth, we noticed one in particular. The right lateral incisor (next to the canine) on the top row is shaped like a T when viewed from below. From the front, the tooth appears normal—but it has another point, or ridge, perpendicular to the front. She has an incisor that has not yet descended, and we have often wondered if it, too, will be special.
The orthodontist said, “You have something I have not seen before, except in textbooks. In dental school we learned about the talon cusp, which is what you have. This is something that occurs more frequently in Native American populations, among certain others, and I am guessing you have some Native American ancestry.” I nodded. The orthodontist told my daughter that she did indeed have a special tooth, and that it was an honor to see it.
Our Family's Ancestry
My husband’s great-great-grandmother was Harriett, a woman born into the Cherokee tribe. Her daughter was Ode Wampu. My own great-grandmother was an Oklahoma-born Cherokee (they called her Fanny). Through years of research we have become well versed in our ancestry, and I have always embraced the multicultural aspects of our family.
When I was growing up, my family lived on a 200-acre farm in the fertile plains of Indiana. This was once home to a paleo-Indian community, and later home to the Mississippian tribe. As kids, we found over a hundred artifacts on our farm, including spear points, arrow heads, nutting stones, and rough outs. My brother and I once found a petrified tooth inside one of the many caves on our property. Until I was an adult I didn’t make the connection to the people who had once lived on this land.
What Dental Anthropology Tells Us
Dental anthropology is a fascinating field of study that uses dental remains to determine, among other things, the race and heritage of a person. I knew teeth were important indicators of our heritage, but curiosity prompted me to do some research. The Texas Archeological Research laboratory has been studying prehistoric dental remains to trace populations in North America.
My daughter has a talon cusp, also called an eagle talon cusp. Around 1% to 6% of the global population have this cusp. A variation of this ridge is the “Uto-Aztecan” premolar, which is found only among Native American populations, mostly in Arizona.
These dental ridges and bumps seem to occur only in people descended from Native American, Inuit, Aleutian, or Chinese people. These populations are understood by dental anthropologists to have extended from the Siberian population many centuries ago.
In addition to dental features, it is possible that other genetic markers may be associated with these peoples, as well. An Associated Press article reported on researchers at Stanford University who found that an "extremely rare mutation of the Y chromosome may be a genetic marker unique to the people who migrated to the Americas 30,000 years ago…This mutation exists only in Indian populations in North and South America, as well as Eskimos.”
More Dental Traits Connected to Native American Heritage
Shovel incisors. Another dental trait indicative of Native American ancestry is shovel incisors, or shovel-shaped incisors (which I have!). The roots of these teeth are double the size of the tooth. The tooth itself is thinner and concave on the backside, with a scooped appearance, like a shovel. Shovel teeth can also have ridges. This feature can be mild or exaggerated. The roots are strong and often run deep into the jawbone, even attaching to the bone itself.
Winged incisors. Winged incisors (front teeth) are also seen among Inuit and Native American peoples. They are called winged incisors because they grow side by side to form a V pattern.
Three-rooted molars. Another trait my ancestors could have had was a three-rooted molar, instead of the more typical two-rooted molar.
European Ancestry and the Carabelli Cusp
My Native American ancestors were not the only people with distinct dental traits. Some Europeans have an additional bump on the outside of their upper molars. This bulge is called a Carabelli Cusp, named after the hard-working dentist of the Austrian Emperor Franz. The Cusp of Carabelli is a heritable feature, so its presence indicates European ancestry.
People of European ancestry tend to have teeth that are flat, without shovels or ridges. Their teeth are smooth on the front and the back. Molars typically have two roots instead of three.
Forensic Science and Teeth
Forensic scientists rely on teeth when no other means of identification can be used to find the name of a victim. I once read that a scientist can determine where you were born just by examining a tooth—that teeth retain trace amounts of minerals from the water you drank as a youth! Whether that is true or not, I do understand how important teeth can be as we recognize who we are in a long line of ancestors.
Some people spend a lot of money on their smiles. Smiles can help us communicate, laugh, love, speak, and open doors to other cultures and experiences. As a Dutch-Irish amalgam, I am delighted to know that my Cherokee roots (pun intended) are still evident in my smile. I am proud of the way my red hair complements my shovel incisors.