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Growth processes in teeth distinguish modern humans from Homo erectus and earlier hominins

Nature volume 414, pages 628631 (06 December 2001) | Download Citation



A modern human-like sequence of dental development, as a proxy for the pace of life history, is regarded as one of the diagnostic hallmarks of our own genus Homo1,2,3. Brain size, age at first reproduction, lifespan and other life-history traits correlate tightly with dental development4,5,6. Here we report differences in enamel growth that show the earliest fossils attributed to Homo do not resemble modern humans in their development. We used daily incremental markings in enamel to calculate rates of enamel formation in 13 fossil hominins and identified differences in this key determinant of tooth formation time. Neither australopiths nor fossils currently attributed to early Homo shared the slow trajectory of enamel growth typical of modern humans; rather, both resembled modern and fossil African apes. We then reconstructed tooth formation times in australopiths, in the 1.5-Myr-old Homo erectus skeleton from Nariokotome, Kenya7, and in another Homo erectus specimen, Sangiran S7-37 from Java8. These times were shorter than those in modern humans. It therefore seems likely that truly modern dental development emerged relatively late in human evolution.

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We thank The Government of Kenya; The National Museums of Kenya; Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg, Frankfurt am Main, Germany; the Natural History Museum, London; and F. Thackeray of the Transvaal Museum, South Africa for access to fossil material. We thank D. Antoine, B. Berkovitz, D. Beynon, D. Clements, C. FitzGerald, L. Humphrey, J. Jernvall, J. Kelley, C. Kiarie, R. Krusynski, D. Lieberman, G. Macho, P. O'Higgins, J. Pendjiky, F. Ramirez Rozzi, H. Smith, P. Smith, F. Spoor, P. Walton and B. Wood for their help. This research was enabled by research grants to C.D. from the Royal Society and the Leverhulme Trust.

Author information


  1. *Evolutionary Anatomy Unit, Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology, University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, UK

    • Christopher Dean
  2. †Department of Palaeontology, National Museums of Kenya, PO Box 40658, Nairobi, Kenya

    • Meave G. Leakey
  3. ‡Oral Biology, Dental School, Framlington Place, Newcastle upon Tyne NE2 4BW, UK

    • Donald Reid
  4. §Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg, Palaeanthropologie, Senckenberganlage 25, D-60325 Frankfurt am Main, Germany

    • Friedemann Schrenk
  5. Department of Anthropology, The George Washington University, 2110 G Street, NW, Washington DC 20052, USA

    • Gary T. Schwartz
  6. ¶Human Origins Group, Department of Palaeontology, The Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD, UK

    • Christopher Stringer
  7. #Anthropology Department, 409 Carpenter Building, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania 16802, USA

    • Alan Walker


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Correspondence to Christopher Dean.

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