What Were Cleopatra’s Teeth Like?

What Were Cleopatra’s Teeth Like?

Beautiful as history has portrayed her, the front teeth of Cleopatra VII (69 BC – 30 BC) Queen of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, were so fused with tartar deposits she could take them out.  Despite this flaw she became one of the world’s most famous seductresses.

Henry V111 (1509 – 1547), had teeth that were surprisingly white. So did his court. Henry was fortunate as sugar had yet to be introduced to England. When it was, its arrival made a significant difference to dental hygiene.

Alas his daughter, poor Elizabeth I inherited more than just a crown. Her teeth were so blackened and breath so pungent that people struggled to decipher her royal mumblings. Lesson learned: being a monarch doesn’t guarantee minty-fresh breath.

George Washington started losing his teeth at age 24. He lost teeth faster than he won battles. By the time he became president (57 years old), he had one tooth left. His dentures were reputedly a bizarre mix of his own teeth, horse teeth, elephant ivory and a dash of metal.

Mao Tse Tung, on the other hand, kept his mouth shut in photos—maybe to hide his stained, chipped and crooked teeth. His dental routine involved saltwater gargling, tea sipping and munching mints. The takeaway? Revolutionary leaders might not always lead the way in dental care.

In the grand scheme of things, teeth can tell tales of ancient diets and lifestyles. From fibrous foods acting as natural toothbrushes to Cleopatra’s unfortunate tartar situation, our ancestors had their dental stories to tell. 

Dr. Anita Radini, the 2023 Dan David Prize winner, believes that your teeth can spill the beans on your past—what you ate, where you grew up, and even your occupation.

A study on ancient Britons revealed that 4,000 years ago, their teeth were “highly mobile.” That’s just a fancy way of saying people had wiggly teeth back then. Historians play detective with ancient texts, cooking utensils and skeletal remains to piece together the puzzle of our ancestors’ diets.

Fast forward to a study on medieval English children’s teeth. Thanks to 3D imaging, scientists peeked into the enamel of kids who lived between the 11th and 16th centuries. These youngsters were weaned by one, fed a mix of raw milk concoction and bread broth, and graduated to adult foods by age seven. Compare that to today’s children with their processed snacks, and you’ll see a stark difference.

Despite their seemingly bland diet, those medieval kids had the upper hand in dental health. No processed foods and hidden sugars meant fewer cavities. Oh, how times have changed! 

For example in his book “Iberia: Spanish Travels and Reflections (1968) author James A. Michener wrote that the Spanish grew corn for consumption by their pigs and by Mexicans.  No right minded Spaniard back in those days would stoop to eating such a culinary low.

Now, with food conglomerates ruling the world, the complete list of ingredients is rarely on the labels. Their power is such that a blogger in North Carolina can get threatened with arrest just for praising the Paleo Diet. 

Oddly absent from this ancient diet is today’s heavy emphasis on “five servings of fruit and vegetables a day”.

(Note – most government’s get their daily food intake recommendations such as fruit, vegetables sugar and salt servings badly wrong.  Compare different countries and you’ll see that most official recommendations differ!).

Today’s babies are fed fruit and sugar-infused vegetable purees, upgrading to an almost adult diet as soon as they can chew.

While the ancient diet appears to have provided the bare minimum to sustain life, today’s range of foods is expanded to ensure children don’t grow up to be ‘picky’ eaters.

But children remain picky and you could write a book on the increasing number of food-related allergies.

What do we learn from this?  

While 16th century children’s diet appears bland and barely sustaining, the lack of processed foods and sugars in their diet provided one noteworthy benefit: children from these ancient times had far less dental decay than children today.

The study also showed that ‘ancient’ children ate the same foods, regardless of socio-economic status.

How times change. 

What will future historians make of all this?  Will an archaeologist in 2000 years time be scraping your teeth to determine whether you preferred milk chocolate to dark chocolate? 

Not this Cleopatra!

Dr Elmar Jung

Dr. Elmar Jung

2 replies
  1. John
    John says:

    Superb article Elmar. It’s fascinating to understand that kids who had no access to sugar (or toothpaste!) hundreds of years ago had better teeth than kids today.

    Many thanks! And keep up the great work!


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