On Animal Teeth, or Why I’m Not a Dentist

Since my last post using comparative anatomy was rather popular, I figured I should write a similar post for this week, starting with the most important part of the skeleton for zooarchaeologists (in my opinion) – teeth!

In my experience, teeth are the best skeletal elements to recover. Why? They’re one of the more easily identifiable parts of the skeleton and one of the more variable skeletal elements across different species.

Unfortunately for me, they’re also some of the…well, grossest parts of the skeleton. Nothing will put the fear of root canals and cavities in you like looking at any worn down tooth from a cow or sheep!

Here is a small sampling of teeth from different animals and how you can easily identify them, in very informal and non-technical-sounding ways:

Pig

Pig teeth might be the weirdest looking teeth I encounter regularly (besides my own…and if you’re my dentist reading this, no I will never get braces, I can’t afford them!). The easiest way to ID them is to recognise how similar they look to human teeth…but just slightly off. Basically, I like to say that the molars look like human teeth that have popped a bit like popcorn. Yes, I’m aware of how gross that is – but that’s how I remember them!

Pig Teeth
Yuck – here are the teeth of a domestic pig.

Dog

Dog teeth have a sort of “wave”-like shape to them that makes them a bit distinct. Often, I’ve found that their molars and premolars not as pointed and sharp as a cat’s teeth (see below), but that isn’t always the case, of course. In any case, dog teeth are quite bulky in comparison to cat teeth.

Dog Mandible
A detailed look at a dog mandible (Photo Credit: Melissa Rouge, Colorado State University)

Cat

Cat teeth have a somewhat similar shape to dog teeth, but I’ve found that they are somewhat more pointy than most dog teeth (although again, this may not always be the case). In comparison to dog teeth, cat teeth are also relatively smaller and not as bulky. A larger set of teeth that may look cat-like could indicate you’ve got another member of the Felidade family (i.e; lion, lynx).

Cat teeth
The dainty, pointy teeth of a domestic cat.

Sheep

The easiest way to ID sheep teeth is to check for a “house shingle”-like appearance. I have found that in comparison to animals with similar looking teeth (cows and horses), sheep teeth are also rather thinner. Be careful, though – sheep and deer teeth are remarkably similar in size and appearance!

Sheep Teeth
The maxilla and mandible of a sheep – note that house shingle look!

Cow

As mentioned above, cow teeth are similar in appearance to sheep with a slight “house shingle”-like appearance. However, given the difference in size, cow molars and premolars will be larger and bulkier, usually.

Cow teeth
Compare these cow teeth with the sheep teeth above

Rodents

And finally, some of the smallest teeth you’ll run into: rodents! To be frank, if you find very small teeth, it is most likely from a rodent of some kind. The front incisors may be a bit more difficult to ID if found alone as they are much larger than the other teeth and may be mistaken for a bit of rib bone. These teeth are what create the pattern of gnawing attributed to rodents that looks like long striations or lines on the bone (more on that in a future post!).

Rat teeth
The skull and mandible of a rat – look at that incisor!

If you’re looking for a more in depth comparison of mammal teeth, I would recommend Mammal Bones and Teeth by Simon Hillson (1992). It’s a great guide that I use in my work with some really clear diagrams.

On Zooarchaeology, or Looking at Dead Animals All the Time

When you’re an archaeologist, you become very aware of how little the general public knows about what archaeologists do. Fair enough, of course…most people conjure up the image of Harrison Ford (at his peak handsomeness) when they think of archaeologists. It’s not uncommon to get the same sort of questions at the annual family gathering: “Do you find lots of gold?” “How many dinosaurs do you dig up?”

Yeah.

So when you decide that archaeology isn’t niche enough, you decide to specialise in a field like zooarchaeology, the study of animal remains in the archaeological record.

One of the most commonly asked questions I get once I mention that I’m a zooarchaeologist is, “well, what’s the point of looking an animal bone?” Oddly enough, that’s not even a question I get just from my friends and family; even some of my archaeologist peers seem to not understand why I do what I do!

I find that animal remains don’t get their due in archaeology, to be honest. Sure, they can be used as economic indicators and evidence of particular diets, but there is much more to it then that!

For example, let’s say you uncover some fish bones at a site. When you identify them, you realise it is a species of fish that are found in deeper waters far from the coast. What does that mean? Well, the people of this site must have had the technology for deep water fishing. You also see that there are no cranial bones in this assemblage. That could imply that processing of the fish (during which the head is cut off) may have occurred elsewhere – perhaps these fish were caught elsewhere as well and then traded to the people of this site. And are there any burnt bone? If so, perhaps these were consumed fish that were cooked!

As someone who came from a background in anthropology, I find that zooarchaeology is a field in which my anthropology training and my archaeological science training can combine. This is especially true for what my current research involves, which is ritual deposits of animal bones.

As we move into an age where analytical science and archaeology are more intertwined than ever before, I believe it will be things that are often overlooked by archaeologists, such as animal bones, that will become more and more important in unlocking the history of sites.

10534722_10152489116078503_3683825252948159553_n
These cow bones were the first animal bones I ever excavated/handled!

What to learn more? Here’s a book recommendation:

The Archaeology of Animal Bones by Terry O’Conner (2000) is probably the book to read if you’re interested in zooarchaeology. It is very beginner friendly and Terry O’Conner is a fun and engaging writer. Definitely worth a look for anyone who is thinking about getting into the field.