Influences in a Biologically Complex Adaptive System: Environmental Stress Affects Dental Development in a Group of Romano-Britons

Influences in a Biologically Complex Adaptive System: Environmental Stress Affects Dental Development in a Group of Romano-Britons

A.H. Brook K.S.B. Koh V.K.L. Toh 

School of Dentistry, University of Adelaide, Australia

Institute of Dentistry, Queen Mary University of London, England

31 January 2016
| Citation



The human dentition shows the general characteristics of a complex adaptive system. Interactions at a molecular level of genetic, epigenetic and environmental factors lead to the emergence of tooth germs. Subsequently differentiated specialised cells control mineralisation and then mature teeth emerge, showing marked variation. The mature dentition provides a record of developmental influences from its initiation at 6 weeks in utero to its completion at 20 years of age. It is, therefore, a valuable paradigm of general development.

The substantial collection of skeletal material of 200–400 AD Romano-Britons from Poundbury, Dorset, has been extensively studied, providing much evidence concerning lifestyle and medical conditions. In this study, we investigate further findings concerning dental development. The aims are to compare the findings with those for Modern Britons and to identify the effects of major factors known to affect the Romano-Britons in order to consider the possible synergism of these effects. The findings were that the patterning of the dentition, its sexual dimorphism and the types of developmental defects were similar to modern Britons. However, the RomanoBritons had more anomalies, generally smaller tooth crowns and roots, and more severe enamel defects. Thus, the Romano-Britons’ dentition showed evidence of insults occurring at all stages of tooth development. These effects, occurring over a long period of time and affecting tissues with different genetic backgrounds, probably arise from ongoing major environmental insults known to be present in Poundbury. These insults have been identified as excess lead ingestion, poor nutrition and recurrent infections. We propose that these factors, acting synergistically, constituted marked environmental stress affecting development.


complex adaptive system, dental development, Romano-British dentition


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