Thanks to the Fork, Humans Developed an Overbite

By Wesley Fenlon

A study of humans and how we eat returns some surprising results about utensils directly affecting human evolution.

The fork changed us, and we never even knew. It civilized us, of course, giving us table manners and delicate tools to fit small chunks of food into our mouths. But the fork and its partner in crime, the knife, actually changed our mouths, too, according to the author of the book Consider the Fork. The Atlantic interviewed author Ben Wilson about his book and some remarkable discoveries, chief among them that the human mouth has changed in the past 250 years. The fork is to blame.

Photo Credit: Flickr user alles-schlumpf via Creative Commons

About two and a half centuries ago, humans had an edge-to-edge bite, meaning our top and bottom teeth aligned for some good guillotine-like chomping action. Apes have the same kind of bite, which is ideal for mashing and tearing a piece of meat. Enter the knife and fork, and suddenly (well, not actually suddenly, but the change is still dramatic) humans develop an overbite. Not the bad overbite kids got made fun of for in middle school--that's a jaw alignment issue--just the now-natural tendency for our top row of teeth to fit snugly over the bottom. Says the Atlantic:

"What changed 250 years ago was the adoption of the knife and fork, which meant that we were cutting chewy food into small morsels before eating it. Previously, when eating something chewy such as meat, crusty bread or hard cheese, it would have been clamped between the jaws, then sliced with a knife or ripped with a hand -- a style of eating Professor Brace has called 'stuff-and-cut.'

The clincher is that the change is seen 900 years earlier in China, the reason being chopsticks."

Amazing to think that utensils have directly shaped human evolution even as they've changed how and what we eat. And the fork, knife and chopsticks are hardly alone in that honor. The Atlantic interview goes on to talk about cauldrons, which led to the easy consumption of soft foods--and in turn allowed humans to survive into adulthood even if they had lost teeth. According to Wilson, no toothless skulls have been discovered in civilizations that predated pottery. Today, we've gain a new appreciation for pots.