Pearly Whites and Golden Spoons: Teeth and Status

Gem Studded Teeth, via National Geographic

Gem Studded Teeth, via National Geographic

In Western cultures, teeth can be a clear indication of status. Often the lower classes have poorer health care and decreased access to proper dental care. While orthodontic treatment is becoming more affordable, having crooked teeth was a potential indicator of lower status. Further, dental whitening and other processes to improve them can be costly and therefore are seen more in wealthier individuals. White smiles have become associated with success, improved social standing and attractiveness as evidenced by the way dental products are advertised today. In the past a number of cultures would alter teeth as a sign of status, either by filing them to points, changing the texture, or inlaying gems into them. However, teeth may also be a sign of status based on what people were eating or doing with them.

Cucina and Tiesler (2003) examined the prevalence of ante-mortem tooth loss and dental caries in comparison to social status. They argue that choices in food would affect dental health, and these choices would be patterned by social standing. The sample consists of 19 elite and 30 common people from the site of Peten in Mexico, part of the Mayan lowlands and dating to the Classic period. Increased access to meats means decreased dental problems like carious lesions and tooth loss, therefore individuals of higher status would have access to meat and better dental health. They found that carious lesions were found less frequently in elite males than in low-status individuals of both sexes and in elite females. Within the lower status individuals there is less differentiation between males and females. Tooth loss was also similar in prevalence rates by status and sex. Individuals who were potentially associated with sacrificial contexts had rates of tooth loss and carious lesions that were the highest, showing a clearly low status. They conclude that elite males subsisted on more meats and refined foods, whereas elite females and commoners had decreased access to these foods and therefore increased dental problems.

Medieval Dentistry, via Medievalists.net

Medieval Dentistry, via Medievalists.net

A new study by Dawson and Brown (2013) examines dental wear of sub-adult skeletons from a late medieval English population. The goal of this article is to determine whether there is variation between dental wear patterns and status. The argument is that dental wear varies based on the types of food one is eating. Eating coarse foods will cause teeth to wear down faster. Soft textured foods include refined grains and higher quality cuts of meat, these would be available to the wealthy as the poor would not be able to afford them. Therefore higher status equals softer foods which means decreased dental wear. Status in this case is based on the location of the burial within the cemetery, which is indicative of the wealth of the family and their status within the society. This argument fits the time period, as proximity to the church altar or other special monuments within the church cemetery was a sign of status and wealth.

The sample consists of sub-adult individuals from three medieval monastic cemetery sites in southern England: the priory of SS Peter and Paul, the priory of St Oswald, and the priory of St Gregory. A total of 142 individuals were analyzed for dental wear, including 216 first deciduous molars and 242 second deciduous molars. Dental wear was scored from a 0 for no visible signs of attrition to 5 for medium dentine exposure to 10 for complete wearing away of the tooth to the root. They found that there was no clear difference in wear based on location of the individual within the church or in the church cemetery. This does not mean that there is no clear status difference, but that at this level of detail nothing can be determined. Dawson and Brown (2013) argue that further detail on the burial themselves is needed. What it important about this study is that they are employing a new method for examining dentition in sub-adults. Wear is not usually examined in sub-adults, but they argue that there is a necessity to do this in future studies.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgCucina, A., & Tiesler, V. (2003). Dental caries and antemortem tooth loss in the Northern Peten area, Mexico: A biocultural perspective on social status differences among the Classic Maya American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 122 (1), 1-10 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.10267

Dawson, H., & Brown, K. (2013). Exploring the relationship between dental wear and status in late medieval subadults from England American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 150 (3), 433-441 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.22221

9 responses to “Pearly Whites and Golden Spoons: Teeth and Status

  1. Back in my osteology and forensic medicine days, we were specifically taught that gold dental work in a cranium or mandible was almost 100 percent assurance that the individual was black. I think the term they used back then was “negroid.” I always wondered how poor American blacks could afford gold dental work, which seems to fly in the face of your thesis. For me, even mercury amalgam was unaffordable.

    Let me guess the answer Katy:

    “Well, Tracy, what you must understand is that such dental work is not made of 24K gold. It is actually a relatively inexpensive material with a minimum of real gold plus other metallic material designed to make it look as if it is mostly real gold.”

    Yeah but:

    If that was the case, why were the Nazis going to such extreme lengths to dig it out of dead Jewish crania to enhance the Third Reich’s gold reserves?

    Answer the question in writing and back up your response by citing key literature relevant to the subject.

    This is the kind of question I would ask you in your written examinations to become a Ph.D. candidate. Are you game?

    • What school and source provided the information that gold dental work were “almost 100 percent assurance the individual was black.”? That is a false statement. I will provide some accurate information and encourage you to do the proper research via pubmed – or go talk to a someone in the dental world.

      Gold, as a form of dental restoration, is one of the most durable materials. All of the other forms available have a short “shelf life” by comparison. While is was, and is, expensive, a gold “filling” (inlay) or crown, crafted and put in by a good dentist would not have to be replace.

      Gold was historically used as a common form of restoration for crowns on molars. As a “filling” material, it was in the form of an “inlay.” An impression of the void would be made, and the gold cast into the shape via heat and centrifuge. The final product (a work of art) would be cemented into the tooth, generally a molar or bicuspid.

      The gold used was real. There was no distinction made in the race or ethnicity of a the patient. I spent years playing (as a child) and working (through college) in my father’s dental practice. I spilled many vials of gold (yep, it is real, trust me). I learned to caste and polish crowns and inlays; I learned to assist with the prep and placement of the final product. Racial and ethnic demographics had nothing to do with it.

      My father taught me as we worked – when to chose gold over amalgam (the “silver” color) vs resin (“white”). Gold was the “best” because of its longevity, lack of toxicity, and the fact that it did not impact the opposing teeth. In the long run, gold is the better investment for dental work. Sadly, it is becoming a lost art.

      • I had actually never heard of gold = african ancestry, so you’d have to ask the other readers. I though gold fillings could be found in teeth of any ethnicity, though I know popularity varies by cultural groups through time and space.

  2. Pingback: Health and Wealth in 17th and 18th c. Germany | Bones Don't Lie·

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