Ancient switch to soft food gave us an overbite—and the ability to pronounce ‘f’s and ‘v’s

If it weren’t for farmers and soft food, we wouldn’t be able to utter the f-word, or any word that has the sound “f” or “v” for that matter. A new study revealed that the switch to processed food after the spread of agriculture gave humans an overbite and eventually two labiodental sounds that exist in more than half of the world languages.


The idea was proposed 30 years ago by the renowned linguist Charles Hockett who pointed out that labiodental sounds such as “f” and “v” were more common among languages spoken by people in societies that ate softer foods and completely lacking in languages spoken by hunter-gatherers. To explain this tendency, a team of researchers led by Damián Blasi at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, set out on an expedition to unravel this mystery.

The study, published in Science in March 2019, revealed something fascinating. Ancient humans had a slightly different jaw structure. The lower and upper incisors were aligned, making it difficult to articulate labiodental sounds which are essentially produced by pushing the upper teeth against the lower lip. We had aligned incisors because our diet depended entirely on chewing gritty, fibrous foods that put force on the jaw bone. Eventually, the lower jaw grew larger, and the molars erupt farther and drift forward on the protruding lower jaw so that the upper and lower teeth align.


Later, our jaws changed to an overbite structure making it practically easy to articulate labiodentals. The team showed that this change in bite correlated with the advent of agriculture in the Neolithic period 12000 years ago. The development of agriculture brought a change in diet; food became much easier to chew and as a result, the jaw bone doesn’t have to do much work and it eventually grew smaller resulting in an overbite.

To confirm this, the researchers scrutinized the languages of the world and found an interesting pattern. There was a global change in the sounds of most languages after the Neolithic era, with the use of “f” and “v” increasing dramatically in recent millennia. These sounds spread so quickly and they went from being rare to common in the 8000 years since the widespread adoption of agriculture and food processing methods. That’s partly the reason why Proto-Indo-European patēr changed to Old English faeder about 1500 years ago.


The study challenges and overturns the prevailing assumption that all human speech sounds were present around 300.000 ago when Homo sapiens evolved. “The set of speech sounds we use has not necessarily remained stable since the emergence of our species, but rather the immense diversity of speech sounds that we find today is the product of a complex interplay of factors involving biological change and cultural evolution,” said Steven Moran, a team member and linguist at the University of Zurich.

This new approach to studying language evolution is a groundbreaking, says Sean Roberts at the University of Bristol, UK. “For the first time, we can look at patterns in global data and spot new relationships between the way we speak and the way we live,” he says. “It’s an exciting time to be a linguist.”

Journal reference: ScienceDOI: 10.1126/science.aav3218


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5 thoughts on “Ancient switch to soft food gave us an overbite—and the ability to pronounce ‘f’s and ‘v’s”

  1. I disagree with the way you have portrayed the evidence of this study. The way your article is written is playing into French Zoologist Jean-Baptiste’s debunked theory that evolution is caused by behavioral patterns of a species which is simply not true. A giraffe’s neck isn’t long because its ancestors stretched and strained to reach the leaves of a tree, it was because the giraffes who couldn’t eat died before they were able to pass on short neck genes. Also, do body builders have abnormally muscular babies? No. This article suggests that humans in agricultural cultures with aligned incisors largely died before they could pass on that trait and I fail to see how that would be a disadvantage to eating corn or any such soft foods. I actually quite think that would be an advantage to eating corn. I don’t deny there may be a morphological shift but I think they’ve missed the mark as to what the cause is.

    After reading the cited study, the researchers are making the claim that the overbite is standard and that aligned incisors found in ancient jaws were a function of eating tough foods. Replace tough foods with soft foods and we go back to having overbites.

  2. I am now not positive the place you are getting your info, but good topic.
    I must spend some time finding out more or understanding more.
    Thanks for wonderful info I used to be looking for this information for my
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  3. My daughter
    Is a
    Pediatric dentist and a diplomate
    To American
    Pediatric dentistry. She
    Is credentialed in
    Myotherapy.. a newer concept about
    The treatment of undeveloped
    Jaws . Check out myotherapy. The contention these days is that the end result of underdeveloped jaws and the need for braces is almost obsolete. When the tongue doesn’t rest
    In the upper palate correctly what develops is speech problems, ADHD, narrow
    Eustation tubes which results in snoring, ear infections . Myotherapy realigns the mandible, maxilla which allows better jaw alignment, better health..it has to be recognized before bone growth is complete.
    It is the very fact that soft foods cause flabby musculature in infants and young kids due to disuse and underdeveloped musculature in the mandible and causes tongue not to lie correctly in the palate. See u tubes on
    Myotherapy

  4. Having read this I thought it was very informative. I appreciate you spending some
    time and effort to put this short article together.

    I once again find myself spending a significant amount of time both reading and posting comments.
    But so what, it was still worthwhile!

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