Richard III’s Teeth

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AP Photo.  University of Leicester

AP Photo. University of Leicester

Richard III has become, once again, quite the celebrity.  At this rate everyone will want to be buried in a car park.

Of course his life story was tolerably interesting, as far as lives go, but his story as historical artifact is (with apologies to Robert Palmer) simply irresistible.

The latest news thrown up after extensive DNA testing of Richard III’s skeleton is that at least some previous members of the royal family aren’t who they thought they were – or perhaps their father wasn’t who they thought he was, anyway.  This article in The Guardian explains that Richard III was probably a blue-eyed blonde and that at least one of the present-day Queen’s maternal forbears may have been up for a bit of extra-marital fun.

Even more interesting, to me at least, are Richard III’s teeth.  Just like the ones depicted on a pirate flag, the king’s teeth meet top and bottom.  This is in stark contrast to the way my teeth – and probably yours – are set.  Most modern humans have an overbite.  Our front teeth protrude slightly in front of our bottom teeth.

This article in Aeon introduces Charles Loring Brace, an anthropologist who examined over 19,000 skulls:

By examining European skulls, Brace found that the typical way in which human teeth fail to meet, with the upper set overlapping the lower set in an overbite, is a phenomenon that is actually only 250 years old in the West. That shift that correlates almost exactly with the widespread adoption of the table knife and fork. Before cutlery, Europeans would clamp their teeth together on large chunks of meat, in order to hack off pieces with a dagger – a style of eating Brace christened the ‘stuff-and-cut’. Afterward, the cutting was done on the plate, and the overbite became common. By way of proof, Brace offers the Chinese, who had adopted chopsticks 900 years earlier – and whose overbite predates the European version by exactly the same amount of time.

The Chinese link is particularly fascinating.  Is this the source of the ghastly old-fashioned caricature of Chinese people with a pig tail and buck teeth?  Was the Chinese overbite as unusual to the European eye as the epicanthic fold typical to the Asian eyelid?

The European overbite was first acquired by the wealthy, before the use of forks filtered down through the social classes.  So now I’m curious – how many of Elizabeth Macarthur‘s peers had an overbite?  Surely many of the earliest convicts, born in the mid to late 1700s, grew up in poverty and without the benefit of cutlery?  And what about people living now who eat with their (right) hand rather than with cutlery?  How does that affect their teeth?

Looks like another research rabbit hole down which I might disappear for a while.  A key text seems to be Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson.

In the meantime, these articles proved interesting:

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3 responses »

  1. I’m full bottle on Richard III having just in the past week ‘read’ (listened to, I get through 4 or 5 audio books a week) Phillipa Gregory’s romance, The Kingmaker’s Daughter. Gregory doesn’t mention an overbite but I am interested in jaws for a slightly different reason. The timescale you mention, hundreds of years, is insufficient for evolution but implies that the way we hold our jaw is learned (rather than inherited), and it is my contention that footballers, and other pugnacious people, Tony Abbott for instance, instinctively hold their jaws in that way to project authority. If only I had worked this out 50 years ago I may have played for Hawthorn!

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  2. Hawthorn’s loss, really. But yes, I think you’re right about the pugnacious jaw.
    I love the way we learn much of our history through fiction. I’m likewise totally across Thomas Cromwell now (thanks to Hilary Mantel). Lisa over at her fabulous blog http://www.anzlitlovers.com often listens to and reviews audiobooks – well worth going there for a scroll.

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  3. Pingback: Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson | Adventures in Biography

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