The Evolution of Teeth: Understanding How Our Teeth Developed over Time

Environmental Science

Teeth are a vital part of our physiology. They allow us to eat and digest food properly, and they contribute greatly to our overall health and well-being. But have you ever stopped to wonder where teeth came from, or how they've evolved over time? In this article, we're going to take a closer look at the evolution of teeth and help you better understand how they've developed over time.

The Beginning of Teeth

The earliest evidence of teeth can be traced back over 500 million years ago, during the time known as the Cambrian explosion. During this period, the first animals with hard body parts began to appear, and among these were tiny, primitive teeth-like structures known as dermal denticles. These denticles were not true teeth, but rather small, pointed scales that likely served as a form of protection.

From these simple structures, true teeth began to evolve. The first true teeth appeared in a group of ancient fish known as acanthodians, which lived during the Silurian period over 400 million years ago. These early teeth were simple, conical structures made of dentin and covered in enamel.

As fish evolved and began to diversify, so too did their teeth. Teeth became more complex, with different shapes and sizes depending on the specific needs of the animal. For example, some fish developed teeth that were interlocking, to help them catch and hold onto prey more effectively.

The Rise of Jawed Vertebrates

Around 360 million years ago, a major evolutionary breakthrough occurred with the rise of jawed vertebrates, or gnathostomes. This group included all the major types of fish, as well as amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. The evolution of jaws allowed these animals to more effectively bite and tear their food, and also allowed them to develop more specialized teeth.

With the evolution of jaws came the evolution of teeth with a greater variety of shapes and functions. For example, some animals developed sharp, pointed teeth for tearing into flesh, while others developed flat, grinding teeth for processing plants. Some animals even developed teeth that could break off and regrow, such as sharks and some reptiles.

Mammalian Teeth

Among the gnathostomes, mammals have developed some of the most complex and specialized teeth of any animal group. Mammals typically have four different types of teeth, each with a unique function. These four types of teeth include incisors, canines, premolars, and molars.

Incisors are typically located at the front of the mouth and are used for biting and cutting. Canines are the pointed teeth that flank the incisors and are used for tearing flesh. Premolars are located towards the back of the mouth and are used for grinding and crushing food. Finally, molars are the large, flat teeth located at the very back of the mouth and are also used for grinding and crushing food.

Human Teeth

Human teeth have evolved over the course of our evolutionary history to suit our specific dietary needs. The earliest humans likely had teeth that were adapted to a diet of tough, fibrous plant material, and also had larger, more robust jaws to accommodate this diet.

Over time, however, as our ancestors began to eat more meat and other foods, our teeth evolved to reflect this change in diet. Our canines became smaller and less pointed, as we no longer needed them for tearing flesh. Meanwhile, our incisors and molars became larger and stronger, as we needed them to bite and chew a wider variety of foods.

Today, our teeth are shaped to accommodate a modern, varied diet that includes both meat and plants. However, while our teeth may be well-adapted to a modern diet, our dental health is still a major concern. Tooth decay, gum disease, and other dental problems are extremely common, and can have serious long-term health consequences.


The evolution of teeth is a fascinating topic that can help us better understand our own biology. From the earliest dermal denticles to the complex, specialized teeth of modern mammals, teeth have played a critical role in the success of the animal kingdom.

However, understanding the evolution of teeth is also important for another reason - our dental health. By understanding how teeth have evolved over time, we can better appreciate the importance of dental hygiene and take steps to ensure that our teeth remain healthy and strong for years to come.