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Ancient switch to soft food gave us an overbite—and the ability to

first_imgAn ancient woman from Romania shows an edgeto-edge bite (left). A Bronze Age man from Austria had a slight overbite (right). By Ann GibbonsMar. 14, 2019 , 2:00 PM D. E. BLASI ET AL., SCIENCE, 363, 1192 (2019) Country * Afghanistan Aland Islands Albania Algeria Andorra Angola Anguilla Antarctica Antigua and Barbuda Argentina Armenia Aruba Australia Austria Azerbaijan Bahamas Bahrain Bangladesh Barbados Belarus Belgium Belize Benin Bermuda Bhutan Bolivia, Plurinational State of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba Bosnia and Herzegovina Botswana Bouvet Island Brazil British Indian Ocean Territory Brunei Darussalam Bulgaria Burkina Faso Burundi Cambodia Cameroon Canada Cape Verde Cayman Islands Central African Republic Chad Chile China Christmas Island Cocos (Keeling) Islands Colombia Comoros Congo Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Cook Islands Costa Rica Cote d’Ivoire Croatia Cuba Curaçao Cyprus Czech Republic Denmark Djibouti Dominica Dominican Republic Ecuador Egypt El Salvador Equatorial Guinea Eritrea Estonia Ethiopia Falkland Islands (Malvinas) Faroe Islands Fiji Finland France French Guiana French Polynesia French Southern Territories Gabon Gambia Georgia Germany Ghana Gibraltar Greece Greenland Grenada Guadeloupe Guatemala Guernsey Guinea Guinea-Bissau Guyana Haiti Heard Island and McDonald Islands Holy See (Vatican City State) Honduras Hungary Iceland India Indonesia Iran, Islamic Republic of Iraq Ireland Isle of Man Israel Italy Jamaica Japan Jersey Jordan Kazakhstan Kenya Kiribati Korea, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Republic of Kuwait Kyrgyzstan Lao People’s Democratic Republic Latvia Lebanon Lesotho Liberia Libyan Arab Jamahiriya Liechtenstein Lithuania Luxembourg Macao Macedonia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Madagascar Malawi Malaysia Maldives Mali Malta Martinique Mauritania Mauritius Mayotte Mexico Moldova, Republic of Monaco Mongolia Montenegro Montserrat Morocco Mozambique Myanmar Namibia Nauru Nepal Netherlands New Caledonia New Zealand Nicaragua Niger Nigeria Niue Norfolk Island Norway Oman Pakistan Palestine Panama Papua New Guinea Paraguay Peru Philippines Pitcairn Poland Portugal Qatar Reunion Romania Russian Federation Rwanda Saint Barthélemy Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Saint Kitts and Nevis Saint Lucia Saint Martin (French part) Saint Pierre and Miquelon Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Samoa San Marino Sao Tome and Principe Saudi Arabia Senegal Serbia Seychelles Sierra Leone Singapore Sint Maarten (Dutch part) Slovakia Slovenia Solomon Islands Somalia South Africa South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands South Sudan Spain Sri Lanka Sudan Suriname Svalbard and Jan Mayen Swaziland Sweden Switzerland Syrian Arab Republic Taiwan Tajikistan Tanzania, United Republic of Thailand Timor-Leste Togo Tokelau Tonga Trinidad and Tobago Tunisia Turkey Turkmenistan Turks and Caicos Islands Tuvalu Uganda Ukraine United Arab Emirates United Kingdom United States Uruguay Uzbekistan Vanuatu Venezuela, Bolivarian Republic of Vietnam Virgin Islands, British Wallis and Futuna Western Sahara Yemen Zambia Zimbabwe Ancient switch to soft food gave us an overbite—and the ability to pronounce ‘f’s and ‘v’s First, the six researchers used computer modeling to show that with an overbite, producing labiodentals takes 29% less effort than with an edge-to-edge bite. Then, they scrutinized the world’s languages and found that hunter-gatherer languages have only about one-fourth as many labiodentals as languages from farming societies. Finally, they looked at the relationships among languages, and found that labiodentals can spread quickly, so that the sounds could go from being rare to common in the 8000 years since the widespread adoption of agriculture and new food processing methods such as grinding grain into flour. Sign up for our daily newsletter Get more great content like this delivered right to you! Country Don’t like the F-word? Blame farmers and soft food. When humans switched to processed foods after the spread of agriculture, they put less wear and tear on their teeth. That changed the growth of their jaws, giving adults the overbites normal in children. Within a few thousand years, those slight overbites made it easy for people in farming cultures to fire off sounds like “f” and “v,” opening a world of new words.The newly favored consonants, known as labiodentals, helped spur the diversification of languages in Europe and Asia at least 4000 years ago; they led to such changes as the replacement of the Proto-Indo-European patēr to Old English faeder about 1500 years ago, according to linguist and senior author Balthasar Bickel at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. The paper shows “that a cultural shift can change our biology in such a way that it affects our language,” says evolutionary morphologist Noreen Von Cramon-Taubadel of the University at Buffalo, part of the State University of New York system, who was not part of the study.Postdocs Damián Blasi and Steven Moran in Bickel’s lab set out to test an idea proposed by the late American linguist Charles Hockett. He noted in 1985 that the languages of hunter-gatherers lacked labiodentals, and conjectured that their diet was partly responsible: Chewing gritty, fibrous foods puts force on the growing jaw bone and wears down molars. In response, the lower jaw grows larger, and the molars erupt farther and drift forward on the protruding lower jaw, so that the upper and lower teeth align. That edge-to-edge bite makes it harder to push the upper jaw forward to touch the lower lip, which is required to pronounce labiodentals. But other linguists rejected the idea, and Blasi says he, Moran, and their colleagues “expected to prove Hockett wrong.” Click to view the privacy policy. Required fields are indicated by an asterisk (*) Email Bickel suggests that as more adults developed overbites, they accidentally began to use “f” and “v” more. In ancient India and Rome, labiodentals may have been a mark of status, signaling a softer diet and wealth, he says. Those consonants also spread through other language groups; today, they appear in 76% of Indo-European languages.Linguist Nicholas Evans of Australian National University in Canberra finds the study’s “multimethod approach to the problem” convincing. Ian Maddieson, an emeritus linguist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, isn’t sure researchers tallied the labiodentals correctly but agrees that the study shows external factors like diet can alter the sounds of speech.The findings also suggest our facility with f-words comes at a cost. As we lost our ancestral edge-to-edge bite, “we got new sounds but maybe it wasn’t so great for us,” Moran says. “Our lower jaws are shorter, we have impacted wisdom teeth, more crowding—and cavities.”*Correction, 15 March, 11:10 a.m.: This story erroneously stated that the newly favored consonants led to the replacement of the Latin patēr to Old English faeder about 1500 years ago. Patēr came not from Latin, but from the Proto-Indo-European language that gave rise to Latin and other languages in Europe and Asia.last_img

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