The Physical Characteristics of Humans
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Human Teeth and Jaws

Humans are equipped with the basic mammalian set of teeth--two sets, in fact, the first of which erupt while we are still juveniles. There are 32 adult or permanent teeth. They show the typical mammalian specialization in function from the front to back of the mouth. The front teeth, or incisors, are adapted for cutting or tearing off pieces of food, and the back teeth, the molars, are adapted for grinding up food materials. The intermediate teeth are intermediate also in function and design. The most striking difference between human teeth and ape teeth is the absence in humans of huge canines. Human teeth are generally smaller and less specialized than those of apes. Since large canines are used in many primate species for social display and competition for dominance, the loss of distinctive canines in Hominid species is sometimes taken as a sign that less competitive and more cooperative forms of social behavior had emerged in very early times. There is little evidence either to support or refute such contentions.

One "signature" in the anatomy of our species which is very useful to scientists hunting for fossil remains is our molars, which have five points or crowns on the grinding surface, while ape molars have only four. Our jaws are relatively small and unimpressive compared to those of apes. This development coincides in the fossil record with evidence of the use of fire, and raises interesting questions about the possible substitution at a fairly early date of cultural techniques for some of the basic biological functions, such as chewing tough materials to make them digestible.


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