Is the Overbite We Take for Granted Only a Few Centuries Old?

The New Yorker has a review of Bee Wilson’s book, Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat.  The book touches on everything from daggers to toothpicks to chopsticks.  It’s about the evolution of cutlery.  Even if you don’t have the time or interest for the book, the review by Jane Kramer is interesting.  An excerpt:

This new cutlery [forks and various knives] transformed the way people ate. By the late eighteenth century in Europe, people were slicing their food into bite-size morsels and carrying them to their mouths with forks—those formerly weird things, Wilson calls them. And they hardly needed to chew such tiny pieces, which in most cases were already softened by pounding, overcooking, or long, gentle braisings. At the same time, the modern overbite began to appear prominently in upper-class Western European jaws. Do not confuse this with the seriously inconvenient condition known to the world as buck teeth (without which we would have no orthodontists, and no mortified adolescents with mouthfuls of rubber bands and wire braces). Wilson’s modern overbite refers to “the way our top layer of incisors hangs over the bottom layer, like a lid on a box,” as she nicely puts it, and is “the ideal human occlusion” for the way we now eat. Why this happened and how long it took to happen is open to some debate, but it’s clear that until it happened most humans had the bite of other primates—“where the top incisors clash against the bottom ones, like a guillotine blade.”

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Bee Wilson is a food writer and historian, not an anthropologist or orthodontist.

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