The earliest recorded case of impacted wisdom teeth belongs to the renowned "Magdalenian Girl," a nearly complete 13,000- to 15,000-year-old skeleton excavated in France in 1911and acquired by The Field Museum in 1926.
For years this rare, early anatomically modern human skeleton was thought to be that of a girl because her wisdom teeth had not erupted, an event that typically occurs between 18 and 22 years of age. New analysis of Magdalenian Girl's bones, however, has lead Field Museum scientists to conclude that she was not a girl but actually a 25- to 35-year-old woman at the time of her death.
Examination of new high-quality digital X-rays revealed that the wisdom teeth were, in fact, impacted, and had thus failed to erupt at the normal time. This is significant because impacted wisdom teeth are thought to be the result of dietary changes associated with later developments in human cultures.
Impaction was unknown during the stone ages, scientists say, due to the coarse diet of the period. This coarse diet would have required more chewing and higher bite forces, which could have stimulated growth of the jawbone and thereby created more room for the wisdom teeth to erupt.
"Finding impacted wisdom teeth 15,000 years ago indicates that the human diet might have already changed, some would say 'deteriorated,' earlier than previously thought," said Robert D. Martin, Field Museum provost and primatologist.
Wisdom teeth are the common name for the third molars. There are usually four wisdom teeth (one in each row of teeth), and they grow in behind the second molars – provided they are properly aligned and there is enough room for them.
Martine, together with William Pestle, Field Museum Collection Manager and bone specialist, and Drs. Michael Colvard and Richard Jurevic of the College of Dentistry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, determined that Magdalenian Girl was a woman by employing new tools and technologies in an ongoing reanalysis of the specimen The determination that the wisdom teeth were, in fact, impacted allowed the researchers to make sense of a number of other indicators in the skeleton that suggested an age significantly older than 18-21.
"There had always been some tension between the young age suggested by the state of dental development and the much older age suggested by a number of developmental and degenerative changes in the rest of the skeleton," Pestle said.
Other tests currently underway include an analysis of tooth structures to confirm the age-at-death; computed tomography (CT) scans to study pathologies and the structure of the bones; stable isotope analysis to reconstruct the prehistoric diet; and DNA analysis.
The skeleton of the Magdalenian Girl, which is the most complete Upper Paleolithic skeleton available for study in North America, was discovered in 1911 near Laussel in southwestern France. The skeleton was found in the Cap Blanc rock shelter, famous for its magnificent decorative stone frieze of sculpted horses, bison and deer that is still visited by tourists today. Several years ago, The Field Museum created a cast of the skeleton for exhibition at Cap Blanc in France.
The original skeleton will be placed on permanent display as part of Evolving Planet, The Field Museum's stunning new permanent exhibit depicting the story of life on Earth. The exhibit opens to the public on March 10. For the first time, Magdalenian Girl's skeletal remains will be exhibit in the "fetal" position in which the specimen was discovered almost 100 years ago.
Martin, Pestle and other scientists will be on hand at the media preview of Evolving Planet on March 7 (see the information below for details) to discuss the new research findings relating to Magdalenian Girl, as well as other significant scientific news, such as the first exhibition of recently described dinosaur species.
When Henry Field, then curator of Physical Anthropology at The Field Museum, acquired Magdalenian Girl in 1926, it was hailed as one of the most significant acquisitions the museum ever made. On the first day the precious specimen was exhibited, tens of thousands of visitors flocked to the museum to see it.
Magdalenian Girl, also known as the Cap Blanc skeleton, continues to reveal significant information about our early human relatives – and she may not be done yet.
"Magdalenian Girl has once again proven the value of museum collections, which often contain unexpected secrets that are only revealed as new methods and techniques emerge," Pestle said.
Digital images available:
Earliest known impacted wisdom tooth
Digital radiograph (X-ray) of the mandible of Magdalenian Girl showing impaction of the right lower third molar (wisdom tooth). New high-quality radiographic imaging of the entire Magdalenian Girl skeleton, which is 13,000 to 15,000 years old, has made reanalysis of this skeleton possible.
Photo courtesy of The Field Museum
In-situ view of Magdalenian Girl, as she was discovered in 1911 near Laussel in southwestern France. The skeleton was found in the Cap Blanc rock shelter, famous for its magnificent decorative stone frieze of sculpted horses, bison and deer that is still visited by tourists today.
Photo courtesy of The Field Museum
Several years ago, The Field Museum created a cast of the Magdalenian Girl skeleton for exhibition at Cap Blanc in southwestern France, where the specimen was discovered almost 100 years ago. Here, a Field Museum staff member coats bones of the original skeleton to prepare them for molding and casting.
Field Museum photo GN90136_2c by John Weinstein, Courtesy of The Field Museum
THE FIELD MUSEUM'S EVOLVING PLANET MEDIA PREVIEW
WHAT: The Field Museum invites media to get a first glimpse at its new permanent exhibition, Evolving Planet. The new exhibition illuminates both time-tested and emerging ideas about the evolution of life on Earth.
Evolving Planet will take visitors on an awe-inspiring journey through 4 billion years of life from single-celled organisms to towering dinosaurs and our extended human family. Closed for two years, the newly renovated and expanded exhibition reopens to the public on March 10.
Media are invited to a special preview of the exhibition. Students from the 5th grade class at Morse Tech Elementary School, a Chicago Public School, will experience the exhibit for the first time. The Field Museum's team of Evolving Planet scientists will be available for interviews.
WHERE: The Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Dr., Chicago
Free media parking in the Museum's EAST PARKING LOT
WHEN: Media preview is Tuesday, March 7, 2006
6 a.m. C.S.T. – Evolving Planet opens for early morning TV only
9 a.m. C.S.T. – Formal Presentation/Reception, Stanley Field Hall
Evolving Planet opens to the public on Friday, March 10, 2006.
DETAILS: In Evolving Planet, visitors can walk through a 300-million-year-old coal forest…examine fossils they won't find anywhere else…and find out how Field Museum scientists are expanding what we know about the past, present, and future of life on Earth.
Featured highlights of the exhibit include: a unique array of 1,300 specimens -- comprised of many never-before-displayed fossils that are rare or exclusive to the Field Museum; an expanded dinosaur hall; more than 150 interactive displays; animated videos on the compelling history of evolution; and updated information on our world-renowned T.rex, Sue.