Wisdom Teeth

Refining our understanding of mammalian evolution through dating dental enamel

Image of the cave enterances to the archaeological site of Pinnacle Point

Pinnacle Point cave PP30

As the complex mosaic of Quaternary human lineages across and beyond Africa becomes increasingly apparent, an accurate chronology is critical to disentangle the patterns and process, particularly those that link human evolution to palaeoenvironmental and climatic change.

“Wisdom Teeth” is a NERC-funded project running from 2020-2023, and will exploit the recent breakthrough made in using protein degradation to date tooth enamel. It will develop the methods further and apply them to regions where the palaeoenvironmental record can help us understand the sensitivity of Africa’s mammalian fauna to climate change. In doing so, it will provide a new, more accurately dated record for the African Pleistocene and Late Pliocene, unlocking insights into our own evolutionary history.

Part of this involves development of "lab-on-a-chip" technology, miniaturising the analytical preparation steps to perform them on a chip the size of a credit card. While this is challenging, if successful then analyses will no longer need to be undertaken at specialist labs, but could potentially be done in the countries where these finds are being excavated, perhaps even in field-stations at the excavations. Our hope is to democratise the technology and the data from these important fossils.

For additional information and general enquiries contact - kirsty.penkman@york.ac.uk