Osteology Everywhere: Why we number our premolars 3-4

Portishead* came on the radio the other day, making iTunes display the cover of their album, Third. My inner osteologist rejoiced to see it prominently features a tooth!

Third album cover by Porthishead (2008). Image from Wikipedia

Well not a picture, but rather the name, of a tooth. In each quadrant of your mouth (most likely) are two premolars, commonly referred to as “bicuspids.” In the biz, we usually call these pals,  “P3” and “P4.”

UW 101-1277 mandible, part of the Homo naledi holotype skull. Modified from the Wits media gallery.

UW 101-1277 mandible, part of the Homo naledi holotype skull. Each capital letter stands for the tooth type (incisor, canine, premolar, and molar). Modified from Wits’ image gallery.

You might be wondering why we call them P3 and P4, when there are only two premolars per quadrant — what happened to P1 and P2?  Homology to the rescue!

The ancestral mammalian condition was to have four premolars (and a 3rd incisor) in each side of the jaw. This is a “dental formula” of 3-1-4-3, indicating the numbers of each tooth type from front to back. Over time, different groups of animals have lost some of these teeth. Baleen whales have lost all of them.

P1 and an incisor were lost early in the evolution of Primates. Most Strepsirrhines and New World monkeys retain this primitive”2-1-3-3″ dental formula :

Ring tailed lemur (left) and woolly monkey (right) maxillae, showing the primitive primate dental formula including a P2. For scale, gridlines are 10 mm (left) and 20 mm (right).

Ring tailed lemur (left) and woolly monkey (right) maxillae, showing the primitive primate dental formula including a P2. For scale, gridlines are 10 mm (left) and 20 mm (right). Images from this boss database.

The last common ancestor of catarrhines (living humans, apes and Old World monkeys) lost the P2, and so we have only two premolars left in each side of the jaw. These are homologous with the third and fourth premolars of the earliest mammals. And that’s why we call them P3-4.

*The song was “The Rip.” It’s a very good song with an insanely creepy and trippy video:

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