Dental topography

Thanks to huds for this post about Dental Topography and Food Deserts: The Role of geographic information systems (GIS) in our Diets

A more scrumptious application of GIS technology allows food scientists to not only “map out our appetites”, give the reasons for why we eat what we eat, but also gives us insight into what our ancestors ate!

At the University of Arkansas, a professor and his team of researchers managed to create GIS based methods to examine fossil teeth to help extract diet information. A combination of GIS software and laser technology gives insight into a dramatic shift in anatomical time, from more herbivorous habits to meat eating.

Why teeth?
“Teeth are perfect for testing diet hypotheses, because they are the best preserved items in the fossil record and are part of the digestive system,” said Peter Ungar, professor of anthropology. “But until now, we haven’t had the technology to pull much information out of them.”

That’s where GIS come in. Teeth shape can tell us what the initial chewing design was capable of, and the “wear and tear” gives clues into food habits and textures. With modern day benchmarks, the research team can get a pretty good idea of what we were all consuming back in the day.

Professor Ungar looked to technology to avoid time consuming manual analysis and gain better, more accurate results. “Dental landscapes” were examined by a high-resolution laser that reads three-dimensional coordinates of the teeth along the surface, which is coupled to GIS software that then calculates them and produces a 3-D map of one tooth.
The team’s analysis showed that Australopithecus afarensis had shallow slopes on their teeth, suggesting a diet of brittle foods like nuts, seeds, roots and tubers, while the teeth of early humans showed steeper slopes with greater shearing power, suggesting a dietary shift to tough meats.

Widely accepted archeological evidence argues the consumption of meat by early human ancestors, but it hasn’t been until Professor Ungar’s research that these dietary hypotheses can be supported!

To analyze more recent food habits, scientists at the UW College of Architecture and Urban Planning in collaboration with the UW School of Public Health have been able to map out the relationships between local environments and health to give insight into why certain population diets vary across regional settings.

Based on data collected via telephone surveys, the team links poor, unhealthy nutrition to socioeconomic status, spending power, and residential transportation accessibility, GIS based environmental variables were measured to highlight distances to fast food joints as opposed to health food stores, annual income and health food costs, and walking/exercise space in neighborhoods.

“The use of GIS offers many exciting ways to map the health-enhancing dimensions of neighborhoods”, the team insists.

I could eat to that!

Fat Neighborhoods: Spatial Epidemiolgy Meets Urban Form

Diet Information from Fossil Teeth

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