It’s one of the things we tell you all the time: don’t use your teeth as tools or you’ll regret it. Using your teeth to open bottles, break ice, or crack nuts can badly damage your teeth.

However, it turns out that some early human ancestors could probably crack nuts and grind seeds using their teeth without damage.

That’s according to a new study that might rewrite our understanding of some of the earliest human ancestors. But because our teeth are very different from theirs, it’s still not a good idea for you! Try it and you’ll likely need restorative dentistry.

young woman biting into a walnut while winking

Understanding the Australopiths

For many years, there has been a debate about whether the earliest human ancestors, the australopiths, ate hard, woody foods, including seeds and nuts, whose hard shells they would have to crack with their teeth, since they didn’t have many tools.
The australopiths were still very similar to nonhuman primates, like chimps and gorillas. This is the general group that includes the famous fossil “Lucy.” Like chimps and gorillas, they had huge teeth and jaws, and, based on the structure of their skull and jaw, they likely had huge chewing muscles, too. The strength of their muscles would have made them capable of cracking nuts and grinding seeds with their teeth, but many people have argued that they didn’t eat nuts and seeds because their teeth didn’t show the expected damage.

It was believed that if the australopiths ate these foods, their teeth would develop microscopic pits from the stress of cracking them. Since australopith teeth didn’t have these pits and cracks, people said they must not have eaten these foods. So researchers decided to test what type of damage seeds would do to teeth.

They took samples of enamel from an orangutan molar, then rubbed seed shells against the enamel samples. They used three different seeds that modern primates eat: African oil palm, Sacoglottis gabonensis, and mempisang. (Yeah, these aren’t seeds you’re likely to snack on while watching the big game.) They found out that the seeds made essentially no marks on the teeth, so the absence of expected marks doesn’t necessarily mean that australopiths didn’t eat them.

Our Teeth and Jaws Are Different

But while this is good insight for understanding the diets of our distant human ancestors (these lived starting about seven million years ago, so it’s very pre-paleo), it doesn’t relate to how you should treat your teeth.

Early human ancestors had teeth and jaw very similar to nonhuman primates, but about two million years ago, we started to change. The thought is that this was in part because we started cooking and processing foods in other ways. Early humans spent about half their day chewing. But cooking and cutting helped make foods easier to deal with. This means that humans spent less time chewing than their ancestors, which, combined with changes to the jaw to facilitate speech mean that our modern teeth and jaws are very different from those of nonhuman primates.

That’s why you can’t crack nuts or grind grains with your teeth. It can wear down your teeth or even cause them to chip or crack. Plus, the force required can strain your jaw muscles and cause joint damage. This could contribute to developing bite problems like temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ).

Do You Have Tooth or Jaw Damage in St. Louis?

Have you experienced tooth or jaw damage in St. Louis? Whether it was related to cracking nuts or not, we can help repair the damage. For minor tooth chips, we might recommend veneers. For more serious structural damage, dental crowns are better.

And if you have developed joint problems, TMJ treatment can help relieve your symptoms.

To learn how we can help repair damage to your teeth, please call (314) 678-7876 today for an appointment with St. Louis restorative dentist Dr. Chris Hill at City Smiles.