Augmented Bodies

Did Forks Really Give Modern Humans an Overbite?

The food writer Bee Wilson, author of Consider the Fork, has put forth a surprising theory about forks and teeth that has received widespread online coverage. According to Wilson, humans had an ape-like bite until relatively recently, with our top and bottom incisors aligned along their edges. With the invention of the fork around 250 years ago, our teeth abruptly switched to the overbite that is common to nearly every human today.

This change is too sweeping and swift for it to be evolutionary, especially since it’s unlikely that an overbite confers any fitness advantages. Rather, Wilson agrees with the anthropologist C. Loring Brace, who argued that the way we use cutlery – using a knife and fork to cut food into small pieces, rather than ripping with our incisors – created a wave of overbites in Europe. This same trend appeared 900 years earlier in China, when chopsticks first came into use. The use of utensils has drastically altered the shapes of our teeth, jaws, and faces, much like wearing corrective shoes can change the shape of feet.

But is that really the whole story? Humans, after all, were tearing food into bite-sized morsels with our hands, flint knives, metal knives, and so on, for many hundreds if not thousands of years. Many societies that don’t use utensils cook extremely soft foods that can be scooped up with fingers or bread – not exactly the animalistic bite-and-rip that Professor Brace proposed. It should be easy to prove or disprove this theory through studying ancient human skulls, early medical illustrations or dentistry records from the large part of the world that still doesn’t use utensils. Perhaps some tooth historians will see fit to clear things up.

If Wilson’s theory is indeed true, it will be a remarkable example of how quickly a simple cultural change can impact basic human biology. Otherwise, it’s more proof that enticing myths spread like wildfire across the internet – something, ahem, that Next Nature is familiar with.

Story via The Atlantic. Photo of an ancient Egyptian skull (with an overbite) via the Australian Museum.

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