In 1967, a team of geneticists and anthropologists published an extensive study of a population of Brazilian hunter-gatherers called the Xavante (1). They made a large number of physical measurements, including of the skull and jaws. Of 146 Xavante examined, 95% had "ideal" occlusion, while the 5% with malocclusion had nothing more than mild crowding of the incisors (front teeth). The authors wrote:
Characteristically, the Xavante adults exhibited broad dental arches, almost perfectly aligned teeth, end-to-end bite, and extensive dental attrition [tooth wear].In the same paper, the author presents occlusion statistics for three other cultures. According to the papers he cites, in Japan, the prevalence of malocclusion was 59%, and in the US (Utah), it was 64%. He also mentions another native group living near the Xavante, part of the Bakairi tribe, living at a government post and presumably eating processed food. The prevalence of malocclusion was 45% in this group.
In 1998, Dr. Brian Palmer (DDS) published a paper describing some of the collections of historical skulls he had examined over the years (2):
...I reviewed an additional twenty prehistoric skulls, some dated at 70,000 years old and stored in the Anthropology Department at the University of Kansas. Those skulls also exhibited positive [good] occlusions, minimal decay, broad hard palates, and "U-shaped" arches.The arch is the part of the upper jaw inside the "U" formed by the teeth. Narrow dental arches are a characteristic feature of malocclusion-prone societies. The importance of arch development is something that I'll be coming back to repeatedly. Dr. Palmer's paper includes the following example of prehistoric (L) and modern (R) arches:
The final evaluations were of 370 skulls preserved at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The skulls were those of prehistoric North American plains Indians and more contemporary American skulls dating from the 1920s to 1940s. The prehistoric skulls exhibited the same features as mentioned above, whereas a significant destruction and collapse of the oral cavity were evident in the collection of the more recent skulls. Many of these more recent skulls revealed severe periodontal disease, malocclusions, missing teeth, and some dentures. This was not the case in the skulls from the prehistoric periods...
Dr. Palmer used an extreme example of a modern arch to illustrate his point, however, arches of this width are not uncommon today. Milder forms of this narrowing affect the majority of the population in industrial nations.
In 1962, Dr. D.H. Goose published a study of 403 British skulls from four historical periods: Romano-British, Saxon, medieval and modern (3). He found that the arches of modern skulls were less broad than at any previous time in history. This followed an earlier study showing that modern British skulls had more frequent malocclusion than historical skulls (4). Goose stated that:
Although irregularities of the teeth can occur in earlier populations, for example in the Saxon skulls studied by Smyth (1934), the narrowing of the palate seems to have occurred in too short a period to be an evolutionary change. Hooton (1946) thinks it is a speeding up of an already long standing change under conditions of city life.Dr. Robert Corruccini published several papers documenting narrowed arches in one generation of dietary change, or in genetically similar populations living rural or urban lifestyles (reviewed in reference #5). One was a study of Caucasians in Kentucky, in which a change from a traditional subsistence diet to modern industrial food habits accompanied a marked narrowing of arches and increase in malocclusion in one generation. Another study examined older and younger generations of Pima Native Americans, which again showed a reduction in arch width in one generation. A third compared rural and urban Indians living in the vicinity of Chandigarh, showing marked differences in arch breadth and the prevalence of malocclusion between the two genetically similar populations. Corruccini states:
In Chandigarh, processed food predominates, while in the country coarse millet and locally grown vegetables are staples. Raw sugar cane is widely chewed for enjoyment rurally [interestingly, the rural group had the lowest incidence of tooth decay], and in the country dental care is lacking, being replaced by chewing on acacia boughs which clean the teeth and are considered medicinal.Dr. Weston Price came to the same conclusion examining prehistoric skulls from South America, Australia and New Zealand, as well as their living counterparts throughout the world that had adhered to traditional cultures and foodways. From Nutrition and Physical Degeneration:
In a study of several hundred skulls taken from the burial mounds of southern Florida, the incidence of tooth decay was so low as to constitute an immunity of apparently one hundred per cent, since in several hundred skulls not a single tooth was found to have been attacked by tooth decay. Dental arch deformity and the typical change in facial form due to an inadequate nutrition were also completely absent, all dental arches having a form and interdental relationship [occlusion] such as to bring them into the classification of normal.Price found that the modern descendants of this culture, eating processed food, suffered from malocclusion and narrow arches, while another group from the same culture living traditionally did not. Here's one of Dr. Price's images from Nutrition and Physical Degeneration (p. 212). This skull is from a prehistoric New Zealand Maori hunter-gatherer:
Note the well-formed third molars (wisdom teeth) in both of the prehistoric skulls I've posted. These people had ample room for them in their broad arches. Third molar crowding is a mild form of modern face/jaw deformity, and affects the majority of modern populations. It's the reason people have their wisdom teeth removed. Urban Nigerians in Lagos have 10 times more third molar crowding than rural Nigerians in the same state (10.7% of molars vs. 1.1%, reference #6).
Straight teeth and good occlusion are the human evolutionary norm. They're also accompanied by a wide dental arch and ample room for third molars in many traditionally-living cultures. The combination of narrow arches, malocclusion, third molar crowding, small or absent sinuses, and a characteristic underdevelopment of the middle third of the face, are part of a developmental syndrome that predominantly afflicts industrially living cultures.
(1) Am. J. Hum. Genet. 19(4):543. 1967. (free full text)
(2) J. Hum. Lact. 14(2):93. 1998
(3) Arch. Oral Biol. 7:343. 1962
(4) Brash, J.C.: The Aetiology of Irregularity and Malocclusion of the Teeth. Dental Board of the United Kingdom, London, 1929.
(5) Am J. Orthod. 86(5):419
(6) Odonto-Stomatologie Tropicale. 90:25. (free full text)