Why Do Humans Have Canine Teeth?

“Well, if we weren’t meant to eat meat, then why do humans have canine teeth?”

This is right up there as one of my top 3 questions I get asked as a vegan, along with and ‘what about your protein?’ and ‘do you at least eat bacon? (yes, in my BLT actually!)’.

The argument is that we are built for eating meat because we have these sharp tools in our mouths. Opting into a plant-based lifestyle is going against our very nature.

There’s a huge difference between saying because our bodies have evolved a certain way that should determine our own individual choices.

Here’s a bit of research that might be helpful the next time you get that question, and you may also be surprised that canines on humans originally were not just for ripping flesh either!

Aren’t Canine Teeth For Hunting?

vector illustration of a vegetarian stone age man hunts vegetables

Any conversation about canine teeth being fundamental proof we should be meat-eaters needs to be put into context.

Firstly, let’s look at the role of our canines.

Humans have four canines, one placed in each corner of the mouth (have a feel around with your tongue if you don’t believe me!). And while arguing that we’d look weird without our signature teeth, that doesn’t really explain why we have them.

The process of eating food – whether attacking prey, ripping flesh or grinding grains and fruits – requires the right tools, and the evolution of our teeth is in response to this.

Humans and primates both have smaller mouth openings, flat incisors, thick molars and rather blunt canines.

Our incisors allow us to cut into a fruit or vegetable with our teeth, puncturing the surface and breaking up the food into smaller pieces.

Molars then flatten and grind food into an easy-to-swallow mash.

Our canines, though originally larger and useful for biting flesh, have blunted over time through a mix of foraging, farming and our changing diets.

So, as you can see, all teeth work together to eat all sorts of things. Having one set of teeth doesn’t paint the full picture. Gorillas, for example, are herbivores, but they require a full range of teeth to take down heavy twigs and sticks.

Canine Teeth for Display

There is an alternative explanation for why we have canine teeth, and heavily backed up by research.

A study published by the journal Plos One, and since corroborated by other researchers, looks at our ancestors’ teeth dating back 300 million years (yes, people study these things!).

They claim the development of our horn-like canine structures can be traced back to a particular pre-mammalian reptile.

We never continued developing them to their full extent. However, other mammals continued to evolve these sabre-like designs for purposes not related to eating or hunting at all.

They were developed for sexual display and assertion of dominance through specific intra-species combat.

The contemporary examples of this are walruses, and if you think of deers’ antlers as a comparison they are used as part of ritualistic fighting between males but not for hunting other animals. So with our canines.

So this may be one theory, but it goes to show that assumptions that sharp things in our mouth therefore equal hunting tools is not necessarily correct.

What About our Digestion?

And of course our canines are only part of the puzzle when it come to our relationship to plants and meat.

The whole point of teeth is not just about being able to shred your food – it’s all about being able to make your food easy to digest and so extract nourishment.

When someone tells you canines means meat-eater, that’s only where food begins. Our digestive system holds a lot in common with herbivores.

Have a look at this image and see the similarities between omnivores, humans and herbivores.

list of characteristics for carnivores and herbivores and omnivores showing where vegans would fit

Humans Are Opportunistic Eaters

Essentially we have evolved to be opportunistic eaters.

We are not true herbivores, and it saddens me when vegans try to make this case.

Yes, we have evolved a certain way that includes tools and abilities for processing meat. However, we have also evolved our consciousness to make choices also.

The basic fact that in our modern lives we do not need to eat animals, no not even for complete protein. We do not experience times of scarcity where we may need to kill and eat our livestock. Nor do we need fat stores in our body to survive through winter.

I hope that has given you enough to hold your own in a conversation around why having canines does not mean we have to eat meat. And hey, if push comes to shove, you can always bite someone arguing with you and put those canines to use!

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