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Kitchen advances have had unintended consequences for the human body

The adoption of kitchen utensils for eating may have led to the development of the dental overbite.

Are kitchen utensils the source of humans' dental overbites?

The Atlantic has just published a Q&A interview with British food writer and historian Bee Wilson regarding her latest book, “Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat,” which is getting great reviews. In the interview, reporter Scott Douglas focuses on how the development of new cooking methods and materials throughout history, such as knives, pots and gas stoves, has had unintended — and often quite surprising — consequences on human physiology and health.

Take, for example, the adoption of the cauldron about 10,000 years ago.

“Until the cooking pot was invented, no one who had lost all their teeth would survive into adulthood,” Bee tells Douglas. “There are no traces of edentulous — toothless — skeletons in any population without pottery. Pots made it possible for the first time to cook nourishing stew-like meals that required no chewing but could, rather, be drunk. So having teeth was no longer necessary for survival. This is another clear example of how utensils have acted as a kind of robotic extension of the human body.”

But the adoption of kitchen utensils for eating appears to have led to an even more surprising — and much more recent — unintended consequence for humans: the development of the dental overbite. Here’s Wilson’s explanation of how anthropologists believe this change came about:

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Until around 250 years ago in the West, archaeological evidence suggests that most human beings had an edge-to-edge bite, similar to apes. In other words, our teeth were aligned liked a guillotine, with the top layer clashing against the bottom layer. Then, quite suddenly, this alignment of the jaw changed: We developed an overbite, which is still normal today. The top layer of teeth fits over the bottom layer like a lid on a box.

This change is far too recent for any evolutionary explanation. Rather, it seems to be a question of usage. An American anthropologist, C. Loring Brace, put forward the thesis that the overbite results from the way we use cutlery, from childhood onwards.

What changed 250 years ago was the adoption of the knife and fork, which meant that we were cutting chewy food into small morsels before eating it. Previously, when eating something chewy such as meat, crusty bread or hard cheese, it would have been clamped between the jaws, then sliced with a knife or ripped with a hand — a style of eating Professor Brace has called “stuff-and-cut.”

The clincher is that the change is seen 900 years earlier in China, the reason being chopsticks.

As with any such thesis, we will probably never have definitive proof that the overbite results from the adoption of the fork, but it does seem the best fit with the evidence.

The first time I read Brace’s work, I was truly astonished. So often, we assume that the tools we use for eating are more or less irrelevant — at most, a question of manners. I found it remarkable that they could have this graphic impact on the human body.

Douglas and Wilson also discuss both the positive and negative impact of copper pans, gas ovens, refrigeration and mechanized food processing on human health. You can read the full interview on the Atlantic website.