This paper addresses the durability of natural teeth from a materials perspective. Teeth are depicted as 'smart' biocomposites, highly resistant to cumulative deformation and fracture. Favorable morphological features of teeth at both macroscopic and microscopic levels contribute to an innate 'damage tolerance'. Damage modes are readily activated within the brittle enamel coat but are contained from spreading catastrophically into the vulnerable tooth interior in sustained occlusal loading. Although tooth enamel contains a multitude of microstructural defects that can act as sources of fracture, substantial overloads are required to drive any developing cracks to ultimate failure nature's strategy is to contain damage rather than avoid it. Tests on model glass-shell systems simulating the basic elements of the tooth enamel/dentin layer structure help to identify important damage modes. Fracture and deformation mechanics provides a basis for analyzing critical conditions for each mode, in terms of characteristic tooth dimensions and materials properties. Comparative tests on extracted human and animal teeth confirm the validity of the model test approach and point to new research directions. Implications in biomechanics, especially as they relate to dentistry and anthropology, are outlined.