Brushing twice (or more if you’re a tooth-loving zealot) is probably the most attention we give to our bicuspids on any given day, unless a trip to the dentist and his drill is in our cards. There might be something that your otherwise amicable dentist might not tell you: she can tell a lot more from looking inside the cavernous depths of your mouth than you first realise.

After death, these stories that teeth tell become more ever more audible and significant. This is, of course, especially true if the circumstances surrounding a person’s passing are slightly out-of-the-ordinary. If there’s even an inkling of homicide at autopsy, then pathologists stand aside and let odontologists (the finest molar detectives in all the land) do the necessary tooth-pulling it takes to make a conclusion as to what happened before a death.

 

1. Eating disorders


There’s obviously some guesswork that goes into assuming that someone may have (or have had) an eating disorder. Conventionally, demographic (the structure of populations), age and unusual erosion of the teeth — taken together — might indicate to a practiced odontologist that perhaps the person in question was struggling with bulimia or anorexia at the time of death. A 14-year-old girl that struggled with body image with worn molars might indicate that an ondologist ought to look a bit closer.

So how do they find out? When you’re vomiting repeatedly, the high levels of acid in the stomach can cause significant damage to the tooth enamel. Enamel is the glassy, opaque substance that protects the surface of our teeth (the more coarse material that we feel increasingly as we get older is the tooth underneath this veneer).

 

2. Abuse, malnutrition and neglect


In cases of child abuse, oral health is a very useful indicator of neglect and malnutrition. A child that is consistently losing milk (or baby) teeth as a result of wounding near the mouth might tip off alert doctors that their caregivers may pose a significant threat. Teeth that are decaying and require removal in a young child also indicates that they are not receiving adequate nutrition at home.

In either case, a capable dentist may be able to glean enough information from repeated visits to inform the authorities and prevent the situation from escalating any further. Unfortunate cases mean that a post-mortem on a child or an adolescent reveals that an untimely death is linked to trauma. Detection of minerals in the teeth can be so precise as to account for specific foods that were not provided.

 

3. Behaviours


Have a grandfather who loves smoking his pipe in the frosty evenings? It’s just another little habit your cunning neighbourhood dentist might uncover. Toothpicks, strangely enough, also leave characteristic markings. Over the course of many years, using such implements for a long period of time will leave their impressions on a person’s teeth.

 

4. Ancestry


Tired of surfing endlessly on websites that have, as yet, turned up not-terribly-much on your family history? Maybe it’s time to take a glimpse inside your mouth. If you’ve got a penlight, take stock of your central incisors and molars (a quick Google search should be able to highlight which ones they are if you’re not sure).

People of Asian and Native American ancestry will have y-5 pattern molars (shown below) and shovel-shaped incisors that look scooped out. If you have European ancestory, it’s slightly different and therefore quite telling: molars are bilophodont (or have two-ridges) and incisors that are smooth and straight on the side which faces the tongue.

 

Your Turn: Shocked by all the new knowledge your dentist might have? Think you’ve got another narrative you can add to this list? Let us know in the comments.

About The Author

Forensic Outreach has long been a dynamic and active part of classrooms throughout the United Kingdom and Europe. It was conceived as part of UCL’s Widening Participation programme in 2002 to introduce forensic science as an integrative and cross-disciplinary approach to science education.

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