tooth truths

we are closer than we think to our hunting-mad cannibal ancestors
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The Independent Online
On Thursday morning my Aussie dentist - using five injections and state-of-the-art pliers - extracted one of my wisdom teeth. After complimenting me on my bravery, the pretty nurse placed the object in a dinky brown envelope so that I could take it home and frighten my wife with it. Sure enough, the smallest threat to produce it has had this strong- minded woman squealing in terror.

So it was that yesterday - having been banished to my study to examine the fascinating object at leisure (a true mark of the anally retentive personality) - I was in a better position than most laymen to appreciate the significance of what had been found in a series of caves in the Atapuerca hills of northern Spain. Here palaeontologists had come across the bones of an early ancestor, now dubbed Homo antecessor. And there, in a newspaper photograph of these remains, was my tooth. The crown was identical, and the three roots were curved in exactly the same way. Yet this familiar- looking gnasher had belonged to an adolescent antecessor, who had died more than 750,000 years ago.

This similarity was made no less disconcerting by the discovery that the boy had almost certainly been eaten - and not by sabre-toothed tigers or giant aurochs. Marks on the bones showed that he had been properly butchered, and the meat removed. Only his antecessor fellows could have done it.

Readers will have seen that chart depicting the ascent of man. A procession of bipedal animals passes from left to right, evolving from a sloping ape, gradually walking tall, the back straightening, the arms growing shorter and, er, other things getting longer. Eventually you end up with someone who resembles the lead singer from Boyzone - evolution's end point. Antecessor, however, disrupts this simple chart; somewhere on the far left is an ancestor who looks exactly like us. His face, jaws and teeth are ours. And he was a cannibal.

But then I read something in the June edition of The Field that put this revelation into some kind of context. The editor of the London Evening Standard, Max Hastings, was ruminating over the fact that many countrywomen of his acquaintance seemed to get the hots for men who rode to hounds. Horse boxes would rock to rodeo rhythms; respectable married women would turn up at dead of night and drop their fur coats - the silvery moon casting a lambent light on the soft mounds and ... oh, sorry about that.

Anyway, Hastings wondered what it was about these otherwise unattractive chaps, "some of the silliest men in England", that should so inflame the passions. It could not be the mere fact of killing - the attraction of blood and sweat - for many shot and angled who never scored.

Some will argue that this is a form of transferred fetishism. Many of these women were formed sexually at a time in their lives when they owned and loved ponies. Since society frowns on the union of woman and horse, their affections were always likely to be won by men who rode upon, smelled of and (in the case of the Royal Family) looked like horses.

This, I think, is modern psychobabble, and I seek a more fundamental explanation. Let us return to antecessor. A female hominid of that ancestral species would want certain qualities from her mate. A vigorous male was more likely to provide meat, to protect the cave and to complete insemination successfully. It would help, too, if he could make a good meal - should the going get rough. And the only way to tell which male was best (in those days before health check-ups and blood tests) was by watching who dashed about most.

Is it not therefore likely that a residual amount of this instinct survives - like the tooth - to this day? That the myths about milkmen (on the go from early morning) and window-cleaners (perpetually scurrying up and down their ladders) carry some inherited truths?

We are much closer than we think to our early ancestors. If you don't believe me, you can go to the country any weekend and find out. Or you can borrow my tooth.