Testing the utility of dental morphological trait combinations for inferring human neutral genetic variation

Hannes Rathmann, Hugo Reyes-Centeno

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


Researchers commonly rely on human dental morphological features in order to reconstruct genetic affinities among past individuals and populations, particularly since teeth are often the best preserved part of a human skeleton. Tooth form is considered to be highly heritable and selectively neutral and, therefore, to be an excellent proxy for DNA when none is available. However, until today, it remains poorly understood whether certain dental traits or trait combinations preserve neutral genomic signatures to a greater degree than others. Here, we address this long-standing research gap by systematically testing the utility of 27 common dental traits and >134 million possible trait combinations in reflecting neutral genomic variation in a worldwide sample of modern human populations. Our analyses reveal that not all traits are equally well-suited for reconstructing population affinities. Whereas some traits largely reflect neutral variation and therefore evolved primarily as a result of genetic drift, others can be linked to nonstochastic processes such as natural selection or hominin admixture. We also demonstrate that reconstructions of population affinity based on many traits are not necessarily more reliable than those based on only a few traits. Importantly, we find a set of highly diagnostic trait combinations that preserve neutral genetic signals best (up to x~r = 0.580; 95% r range = 0.293 to 0.758; P = 0.001). We propose that these trait combinations should be prioritized in future research, as they allow for more accurate inferences about past human population dynamics when using dental morphology as a proxy for DNA.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)10769-10777
Number of pages9
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number20
StatePublished - May 19 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.


  • Bioarchaeology
  • Biodistance
  • Dental morphology
  • Genetic drift

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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