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Ancient Teeth May Help Reveal the Process of Human Evolution

First Posted: Feb 26, 2016 07:44 AM EST

Teeth may actually predict human evolution. Scientists have shown that the evolution of human teeth is much simpler than previously thought, and that we can predict the sizes of teeth missing from human fossils and those of our extinct, close relatives.

In this latest study, the researchers took a fresh look at the teeth of humans and fossil hominins. The researchers confirmed that molars, including wisdom teeth, do follow the sizes predicted by what is called "the inhibitory cascade," a rule that shows how the size of one tooth affects the size of the tooth next to it. This is important because it indicates that human evolution was a lot simpler than previously thought.

"Teeth can tell us a lot about the lives of our ancestors, and how they evolved over the last seven million years," said Alistair Evans, one of the researchers, in a news release. "What makes modern humans different from our fossil relatives? Paleontologists have worked for decades to interpret these fossils, and looked for new ways to extract more information from teeth."

In this latest study, the researchers found that while both groups-species in genus Homo and autralopiths-followed the inhibitory cascade, they did so in slightly different ways.

"What's really exciting is that we can then use this inhibitory cascade rule to help us predict the size of missing fossil teeth," said Evans. "Sometimes we find only a few teeth in a fossil. With our new insight, we can reliably estimate how big the missing teeth were. The early hominin Ardipithecus is a good example - the second milk molar has never been found, but we can now predict how big it was."

The findings could help researchers better place humans in the course of evolution. This is important when it comes to finding our ancient ancestors.

The findings are published in the journal Nature.

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