Baby Teeth in Bioarchaeology

Have you ever stared at a young person’s teeth to estimate how old they are? Well you should!

Deciduous dentition from Early Bronze Age archaeological site in Romania (© MARBAL Project 2017).

Teeth are important for determining ages of individuals, especially when there is more than one individual in a burial. We’re currently working on a commingled grave which contains adults and sub-adults which has given me some exposure to deciduous and developing teeth. Deciduous, or baby teeth, are temporary teeth that are replaced by permanent teeth as an individual ages. The presence of these teeth in a burial allows for a precise age estimate, since tooth development occurs at specific ages. In this case, some teeth were in the process of erupting. These teeth can be seen still in the crypt, or hollow areas of the jaw where the teeth develop before eventually erupting.

Emilie analyzing deciduous dentition (© MARBAL @2017).

Permanent teeth are different from deciduous teeth in that once they erupt, they are present for the remainder of an individuals life unless removed (such as in cases of infection or injury). The roots of permanent teeth are thicker and more uniform in shape than their baby precursors. The crowns on baby teeth are also more rounded and bulbous than the defined crowns of permanent teeth. The differences between types of teeth are particularly important in commingled burials. There are several questions to ask: “Are there children in this grave? Only children, or children and adults? What are the specific ages of the individuals? How many children and adults if both are present?” Only one way to find out the answers to these questions!

Deciduous (baby) teeth, from Early Bronze Age archaeological site (© MARBAL 2017).