How Your Teeth Reveal Clues About Your Ancestry

Updated on November 15, 2016
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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.

Final Thoughts

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.

Questions & Answers

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      • profile image

        3 weeks ago

        I went through hell when my last two wisdom teeth were extracted last year. What should've been a 2 second extraction turned into 20 minutes. The bottom molar had an extra root that the surgeon had to saw away my jaw bone to get out. I briefly pondered the idea of Native American ancestry and decided, nah that's stupid. Trace East Asian ancestry in white people is usually much more likely. Earlier this year my mom and I did our DNA, and whaddya know, hers came back 1% Native American. Given she also has French Canadian ancestry, the 1% probably isn't noise as they were known to interact with and live among the Iroquois. So you never know. Occasionally teeth do provide clues to ancestry.

      • profile image

        Mizbejabbers 

        4 months ago

        Glad I found this article because I'm trying to research teeth shapes of Native Americans. By most descriptions, I had most of the characteristics of Native Americans, with the exception of one or two. I lost a couple of my front teeth and had to have a bridge with crowns installed in my 20s. The bridge was described to me am imitating my natural teeth, and they fit the description of shovel teeth. They are also large teeth for my small face. There are tales of Native Åmericans in my ancestry, including one Cherokee, one Choctaw, and one unknown. But then a DNA test through 23andme said I am 100% European.

        23andMe also says it can't test past one's grandparents, so I may or may not have Native American genetics. This whole thing is so confusing that I have scheduled a geneticist to speak to a group for which I am program chair.

        One thing that I did learn lately is that the father's mother's mt-DNA is not passed on to the child, but only the mother's mt-DNA. So a lot of people, including myself, have been under the impression that because daddy's mama was a Native, "I" must be native, too. I guess we all have a lot to learn.

      • profile image

        4 months ago

        I took the ancestry.com DNA test and found out I am 100% white european. However, I have shovel incisors and a lack of a carabelli cusp. No one in my family knows anything about any nonwhite ancestors.

      • profile image

        Erin 

        4 months ago

        My father and I both have a weird tooth condition, we each have 4 roots on our molars not 2 or 3. We discovered this when we lived states apart going to separate dentists at the time, both of whom told us it was very rare and unique. I've always wondered why where that trait came from? It surely has to be genetic if it's that rare and we both have it. The 4 roots are a pain because it caused us both to have shattering molars. The dentists said if you imagine a table with 4 legs and pressure being applied to the legs the table would eventually get enough stress to break or pop the molar bellow the roots causing cracks or shards to break. Wherever it originates from, I can't imagine a genetic purpose for that... I do however have the German humps on the back of my incisors and him as well. I actuality never knew it was different than everyone else's until I read this article.

      • profile image

        James 

        7 months ago

        Some number of years ago, I read an article on 5 people groups and the shape of their teeth. I have been unable to find that article and even called anthropology departments at major universities with no luck. Anyone know where to find such information?

      • profile image

        Chloe 

        9 months ago

        I have a daughter who has one tooth shaped like the eagle claw in the article but we had no idea of any Native American being in our family.

      • profile image

        meg thomson 

        10 months ago

        and also a convex hard palate is a native american trait

      • profile image

        Neta Mills 

        12 months ago

        My children and I inherited very small teeth. We all lost our upper right tricuspid in our later adult years. No wisdom teeth. A split in the middle. And tori unusual bone growth behind lower teeth. My older sister on the roof of her mouth had the tori. Bone

      • profile image

        Terrence 

        14 months ago

        My teeth are like facing each other and I'm a Ojibwa

      • profile image

        Shanelle 

        16 months ago

        I am part Cherokee Indian from my mother and grandfather.It is a native trait to have the two sets of sharp teeth on top.My dentist told me it is because I was born without lateral incisors.Which is good cause they had no room to grow in my mouth anyway lol

      • profile image

        Lil 

        16 months ago

        I have double of my sharp teeth on both sides on the top row and on the right side on the bottom what does this mean

      • profile image

        Survivorjo 

        17 months ago

        One time I had to have an upper molar tooth pulled. They had a terrible time pulling it and had to call more staff in for help figuring it out. Once they had the tooth pulled we all noticed that the part of the tooth that was in the gums was very long growing up into my cheekbone it seemed. The entire tooth was probably close to 1 1/2 inches long.

        The staff at the dentist office were all coming in to see the amazing long tooth. LOL. I should have kept it.

        They said my tooth nerves were extra long and complicated.

        All of that was supposed to have been related to my Native American ancestry, although I do not have bucket or winged teeth just long, strong sturdy teeth.

        Also I learned that many NA tribes didn't have much issues with wisdom teeth because their mouths tended to have more space. I just found out today that I have a wisdom tooth that has fully grown in and I never knew when it was growing and I'm 46! The x-rays revealed that the other 3 are growing in but I don't feel them. There is space for them.

        My relatives on my Mom's side are white and a lot of them have had to have their wisdom teeth cut out. The Cherokee comes from my Dad's side and I can't think of a single person on that side who needed their wisdom teeth cut out.

        So I believe it to be true that some tribes have roomy mouths for wisdom teeth to painlessly grow in.

      • profile image

        Hayley 

        18 months ago

        Loved this article such a joy to read yet factual

      • profile image

        Geri Gustin 

        20 months ago

        Wow! How interesting. Checked my own teeth, but I don't know what to check for. Nothing unusual, though I know my heritage.

      • profile image

        LaurenRN 

        20 months ago

        I found your article very interesting and informative. Different nationalities/ races do have characteristics that are indicative of their specific DNA gene pool. This is not racist, this is not a judgement, it is a repeated observation within populations, that is increasingly being identified and documented in the mapping of the human genome. I am glad you did not take down your article.

      • profile image

        Lydia Bishop 

        20 months ago

        Very interesting post! My grandfather, Dr. Raymond C. Willett was an early orthodontist who lived in Illinois. His knowledge of tooth structure helped scientists connect Native Americans to the people of far eastern Asia. He accompanied some physical anthropologist on digs and studied the teeth and skulls found in the sites. Me? I have plain, ordinary European teeth.

      • profile image

        RoniJo 

        2 years ago

        I enjoyed your article very much. Good job, very insightful. Only kudos here. I was interested in knowing if your article touched on those of us with larger front teeth (I had been referred to as "beaver teeth" in grade school. Kids.) I am of British and Irish descent, primarily, according to 23andme. :)

      • Sarahredhead profile imageAUTHOR

        Sarah Jackson 

        2 years ago from Southern United States

        First, allow me to say that this article was written with a sense of joy, educational benefit and wonder and there was NEVER any malicious intent behind its purpose. Many hours of research and interviewing dental professionals went into the creation of this article. This article was scouted by Family Tree Magazine and read, approved and published by their staff in one of their issues.

        Never, of any article which I have ever written, have I ever received so much hate mail, mean comments and vulgar language as I have with this piece. I have been threatened, called names, degraded and I have chosen to "deny" dozens of comments because of their scathing nature. The hatred has been so overwhelming at times that I have considered deleting this article altogether.

        In NO WAY is this article intended to be racist, condescending, a personal attack on anyone's heritage or mouth, rude, elitist, or to provide false information. I am overwhelmed at how offended people are by this.

      • profile image

        LJ 

        2 years ago

        I'm a dental hygienist and of European descent. The author wrote that the cusp of carabelli is on the lower molars. It is actually on the upper molars. I actually have this characteristic

      • profile image

        RDH 

        2 years ago

        Cusp of carabelli is on maxillary teeth

      • profile image

        Kirsten 

        3 years ago

        My boyfriends incisors have a natural "chip" out of the outer lower corner. My son has it also. His teeth are very small. Any ideas? I dont see any native blood in my history either and i have a small talon cusp. Perhaps I need a genetic test?

      • profile image

        Tara 

        3 years ago

        It seems that your dentist mistook the talon cusp tooth for the shovel-shaped teeth that is connected to Native American ancestry.

      • profile image

        Resource Dragon 

        4 years ago

        "Europeans have nice and simple teeth – straight in form and flat; no shovels or ridges. Their teeth are smooth on the front and the back. Molars belonging to the European community have two roots per first molar instead of three. Europeans have some of the smallest teeth in the world."

        I wish. I wish especially when the dentist is spelunking in the third root.

      • profile image

        ldvger 

        4 years ago

        I lost all my upper teeth fairly early (gone by age 55), but I know for a fact that all my upper molars had 3 roots, one in front and two in back...I saw the X-rays and dealt with the extractions. All my wisdom teeth also had 3 roots, as I still have all 4 of them as momentos. My remianing lower molars also have 3 roots and those that have been removed had 3 roots. One extraction of a lower molar was especially memorable because one of the roots curled inward into the lower jawbone and had to be surgically extracted in pieces. I was passing bone and tooth fragments for months afterwards.

        My dad maintains that his family has native american genes, but I have done extensive family research and found no evidence in any records going back to the late 1700's, before his family ever came to USA. I have verifiable records of direct descendancy from 1799 to present and there is no record of Native American influence. Which isn't to say it's there, just to say it's not recorded anywhere.

      • profile image

        Scyanchimera@gmail.com 

        4 years ago

        Hello,

        I was very surprised by this article. I was afraid when my second teeth came..Of course dentists told me the same " I have never seen this".. Sharp, long teeth and RTG seems very familiar. I wished that some body could resolve this.. so Thank You ! :) Strange is that I was born in Czech Republic and my ancestors were Jewish, German, Holland and because of strawberry blond hair maybe Celtic. It is funny to think that I could have Native American Indians as ancestors too.

      • Sarahredhead profile imageAUTHOR

        Sarah Jackson 

        4 years ago from Southern United States

        Thank you NevrOnMonday. We continue to learn more as time.goes by. I was surprised when Family Tree Magazine printed this article in their June/July issue. When they originally inquired about the article

        I was conscientious about the facts represented. While not all races are represented, the magazine felt the article le was an excellent means by which to start a conversation and get people interested in yet another fascinating aspect of their heritage. While this one article has been, by far, my most controversial (I have deleted several scathing hate mails about it!) I stand by it and I continue to learn more. Again, thank you.

      • profile image

        NevrOnMonday 

        4 years ago

        A National Geographic story by Brian Handwerk may provide a possible clue as to why certain physical traits often associated with Native American people are seen in other populations as well. According to Handwerk, Native Americans are related to Western Eurasians in addition to East Asians.

      • Sarahredhead profile imageAUTHOR

        Sarah Jackson 

        5 years ago from Southern United States

        Shovelling European: thank you for the comment! You may absolutely be right! We based this article on many days of research performed online and speaking with people in the dental profession. I have no doubt such a blanket statement (about Europeans having straight smooth teeth) would fail to cover the great individual features of so many peoples. Thank you for sharing and furthering our own education. Fascinating stuff, really!

      • profile image

        Shovelling european 

        5 years ago

        "Europeans have nice and simple teeth – straight in form and flat; no shovels or ridges."

        I don't know about the rest of Europe but at least here in northern Europe people sometimes have slightly shovelled front teeth. I have them and my family is mostly from Finland. Of course, finnish people are genetically a bit of an oddity among other europeans but I have read that this shovel-trait can be found among scandinavian people also. Please, correct me if I'm wrong. I'm not an expert. It just bothered when I read that europeans have straight teeth because I am proof we also can have shovelled teeth and I surely do not have any native american blood in me.

      • profile image

        Nina 

        5 years ago

        Hi, my teeth are definitely shoveled in the back though not as extreme as some photos show, but not smooth at all and i don't have the cusp. I am sicilian among other things. I am getting a genetic test done one day because I want to know there are strong rumors of Roma Gypsy blood and even Native American, but I would never say that unless I had proof because too many people say that without the background information or evidence that you have. I am wondering could this mean I do have non white blood in me? non european?

      • Don Bobbitt profile image

        Don Bobbitt 

        5 years ago from Ruskin Florida

        A very good read. I learned a lot. And, of course, I just had to get a couple of mirrors and look at mine. LOL!

      • Sarahredhead profile imageAUTHOR

        Sarah Jackson 

        5 years ago from Southern United States

        We lived at the very end of Chicken Run Road in Madison. We went to school in Hanover. So that would be Jefferson County.

      • profile image

        Jdoes 

        5 years ago

        I was intrigued with your description of Indiana. I live in SW Indiana and wondered if you were writing of these areas: Greene, Davies, Knox, Gibson, Posey, Vanderburg counties?

      • profile image

        Deena 

        6 years ago

        I had a similar experience at the orthodontist. They had to do some inventive dentistry to accommodate the "uto-aztecan" cusp I have on the outside outside of an upper molar.

      • profile image

        Chipoletespice 

        6 years ago

        "Native Americans had these large-ridged incisors 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."

        Your dentist should come down and visit the Reservations and the poor living conditions Natives live in, would that be an honor for her?

        What an insult to Native peoples. Being honored to look into the mouth of a White kid and see teeth they assume is Native. So laughable.

      • Your Cousins profile image

        Your Cousins 

        6 years ago from Atlanta, GA

        I enjoyed reading your hub and learning about teeth and ancestry. Very well done and very interesting.

      • profile image

        Brenda 

        6 years ago

        I had a new set of teeth fitted a few years back- gums were shot. During the removal of my teeth the dentist made a wow noise! I asked him what it was about, he said I had double- rooted incisors which was very rare.My brother also said he had the same in an oral xray. Does this indicate a genetic cause? Does anyone know where we are from??

      • profile image

        Scott 

        6 years ago

        Actually, Carabelli's cusp occurs in non-European populations as well, just not as commonly. After European populations, the cusp occurs most frequently in Sub-Saharan African groups.

        Also, Europeans should be considered as part of a larger population group known as "West Eurasian" which includes North Africans, Turks, Arabs and other Middle Eastern peoples. This term basically corresponds to "Caucasian/Caucasoid".

        For more info:

        http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Anthropology-Modern-Hu...

      • profile image

        Jackie 

        6 years ago

        I've been wondering where I got my teeth from, I thought I had only English & French ancestry, but I have the same 'talon cusp' - as far as I knew I have no Natice American ancestry at all!

      • Sarahredhead profile imageAUTHOR

        Sarah Jackson 

        6 years ago from Southern United States

        Thank you!!

      • profile image

        Susan K Skilton 

        6 years ago

        Great photo and explanation! I have referred my blog readers here.

        http://sksgenealogy.blogspot.com/

      • Anne Harrison profile image

        Anne Harrison 

        6 years ago from Australia

        How amazing. I had never heard of this - I thought teeth were teeth! Thank you.

      • profile image

        Suz 

        7 years ago

        I am from Canada and it wasn't till 2005 that I was told I had native genes with my teeth. I was told by a dentist. The teeth go right down to the bone. Thank you for more information to confirm what I thought.

      • Alastar Packer profile image

        Alastar Packer 

        7 years ago from North Carolina

        Its a delight to find this hub( and a fellow southerner! ) Different heritages indeed have some different physical characteristics.Teeth, as you've so finely written being one.The Melogeons[?]in the Appalachians for example claim that if a person has shovel teeth, a bump on the back of their head etc.that this then indicates their heritage. As far as I know,there is no Native Amer.roots in my own background yet I have the bump and very slightly concave front teeth.What do you think Sarahredhead?

      • AliciaC profile image

        Linda Crampton 

        7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        What an interesting hub! It was fascinating to learn about teeth differences in different groups of people. I knew nothing about this before I read your hub. Thanks for the information.

      • The Dirt Farmer profile image

        Jill Spencer 

        7 years ago from United States

        Fascinating! And beautifully written. Vote up.

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