Human Vs. Animal Teeth: What Our Teeth are Designed to Do!

Meat: it’s what’s for dinner. It’s hard to find an American dinner table without a big slab of animal as its centerpiece. This is what makes us behavioral omnivores – it’s part of our culture, civilization and food pyramid to eat a so-called “balanced” diet of animal protein, grains, fruits and vegetables.

But roughly 10,000 years ago, humanity witnessed an incredible turning point. Instead of foraging around the fields and forests in search of food, we learned to grow our own. And along with farming came the idea of animal domestication, and the notion that instead of hunting and tracking animals, one could raise them from birth and slaughter them whenever we got hungry.

Fast-forward a bit and here we are in the present buying shrink-wrapped chicken thighs by the pound, incorporating them into most every meal.

So while we may be behavioral omnivores, the consensus among anthropologists and archaeologists is that we aren’t physiological omnivores. Until we made that pivotal shift from nomad to farmer, between 90 and 98 percent of our diets came from the local flora, not fauna.

Researchers took a long hard look at the human body and its functions to come to this conclusion; it’s not just propaganda of the veggie camp. And some of the most telltale signs are from our teeth.

Look at the layout of a carnivore’s mouth. A wolf or a shark has a huge bite “footprint” – that is, they can bite deeply into something with the entirety of their jaws to grip and rip as much flesh as possible. Their teeth are also spaced apart from one another along the inner jaw line and each one comes to a pointy, spear-like tip.

Compare that dental arrangement with vegetarian animals like monkeys or horses who both have smaller mouths (relative to their head and jaw sizes). They also have teeth that are very close together arranged into neat, uniform rows. They mash their food around from side to side, concentrating more on chewing than biting… just like we do. Hmmm….

“Hold on just a second!” you’re thinking. “What about our ‘canine’ teeth?”

First of all, we only have four canines and 28 other teeth of other types, so already this isn’t a strong point to argue from. But in terms of usage, we see our closest primate cousins use their canines for chipping bark, piercing fruit and grooming. They also play a role in mate selection, dominance and display, as primates tend to bite down bare their teeth to each other as an intimidation tactic (just like how walruses use them – and people too, when they get really mad!).

Lastly, for one last animal analogy, I point you to the hippopotamus – an animal with huge, menacing teeth that subsists entirely on grass.

When it comes to humans eating meat, when it was on the menu, it was almost always scavenged, not hunted. I’ll be going into more detail about our ancestral, optimal diets in future posts, and share some more interesting evidence that supports the fact that humans are designed to eat things that grow out of the ground, not scurry around on top of it. Stay tuned!

Dr. Dave

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