A tale of ancient toothpaste
An Egyptian toothpaste formula from the 4th century AD has been found in a collection of papyrus documents at the National Library in Vienna, Austria.1,2 In black ink (now faded after 1,500 years) made of soot and gum arabic mixed with water, an ancient Egyptian scribe has carefully written down a recipe ‘for white and perfect teeth’.3 This makes it the world’s oldest-known recipe for toothpaste.
The iris flower is a main ingredient in the ancient dental formula discovered recently by researchers.
The formula, presented at a recent international dental congress, included mint, salt, grains of pepper and—perhaps the most active component—dried iris flower. News of the ancient formula is said to have ‘caused a sensation’ among the dentists at the congress.2 Dental researchers have only recently discovered the beneficial properties of iris—found to be an effective agent against gum disease—which has now been brought into commercial use.
This ancient Egyptian toothpaste is described as having been ‘ahead of its time’.1 Until 1873, when Colgate released the first commercially prepared toothpaste, most people relied upon a mixture of soap and salty water—a far less effective concoction.
One dentist who attended the international congress and actually tried the pungent toothpaste himself, said, ‘I found that it was not unpleasant’, and, ‘afterwards my mouth felt fresh and clean.’1
The 4th-century toothpaste recipe was among a mass of papyrus documents purchased in 1878 after being found on a rubbish dump outside the ancient Egyptian city of Crocodilopolis. Dr Hermann Harrauer, who heads the papyrus collection at Austria’s National Library4 and who discovered the long-lost recipe, explained further, ‘As papyrus was hard to come by, it was often reused, and this document had on the back details of correspondence between monasteries, implying that perhaps the person who wrote it was connected with them in some way.’2
Dr Harrauer continued, ‘Maybe he was a monk. By the fourth century AD, Egypt had been Christianised and Christian monks were also physicians, and this would fit in with what we know.’ The time of writing coincided with the period of the great Christian theologian (and creationist) ‘Basil the Great’,5 Archbishop of Caesarea, renowned for having emphasized that up-to-date medical and health care be practised by monastic communities. Dr Harrauer said that the toothpaste formula was ‘written by someone who obviously had some medical knowledge, as he used abbreviations for medical terms’.2
For those who are used to thinking in evolutionary terms, i.e. who regard early man as ‘primitive’, such discoveries of the advanced level of technology in earlier cultures can often be a real eye-opener. As one dentist who attended the meeting where the recipe was unveiled commented, ‘Nobody in the dental profession had any idea that such an advanced toothpaste formula of this antiquity existed.’1
In contrast, reports that ancient Egyptians and other peoples were just as inventive as people today ought not to surprise Christians—the Bible says humans were created ‘fully human’ on Day 6 of Creation Week, only around 6,000 years ago.6 No wonder that the ingenuity of ancient man continues to delight creationists and surprise evolutionists!
References and notes
- Viegas, J., Oldest Toothpaste Formula Used Iris, Discovery Channel, <dsc.discovery.com/news/briefs/20030120/toothpaste_print.html>, 11 February 2003. Return to text.
- Zoech, I., The ancient Egyptian recipe for toothpaste, The Telegraph (UK), <www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2003/01/19/wtooth19.xml>, 4 August 2003. Return to text.
- The formula was written in Greek, the official language of Egypt for about 1,000 years until the last temples closed in the sixth century AD. Ref. 2. Return to text.
- The recipe was discovered among part of the largest collection of ancient Egyptian documents in the world—180,000 items up to 3,500 years old, including stone and clay tablets—gathered by the Hapsburgs, the rulers of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Ref. 2. Return to text.
- Some accuse creationists of taking an excessively literal view of Genesis, and assert that this is a recent phenomenon, i.e. that Christians in the early church took an allegorical view of Genesis. The writings of Basil show otherwise. See Batten, D., Genesis means what it says: Basil (AD 329–379), first published in Creation 16(4):23, 1994. Return to text.
- The obvious implication is that man was highly intelligent from the start, and developed technology as time progressed. The Bible tells us that even before the first man and woman had finished having children, their older children were growing crops and raising livestock (Genesis 4:2, 25). Early man had music, musical instruments, and could forge ‘all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron’ (Genesis 4:21–22). Return to text.
Ancient nations reflect the brightness of intelligence (God given) in many ways, but also human depravity. It's great that the writings were rescued from the scrap heap of destruction. Those Egyptians walked pretty funny though.
Knowledge of dental hygiene is not the same as practicing dental hygiene. If you compared some 21st century dentures to those of 4000 years ago you might wonder if we had advanced intellectually at all.
Re the illustrator's choice of the funerary mask of Psusennes I (badly ‘photoshopped’ to perhaps raise a smile in the reader): Actually, Psusennes was not a good role model for good dental practice; Dr. Douglass Derry, former head of Cairo University's Anatomy Department, examined the king's remains in 1940, and noted that Psusennes I's teeth were badly worn and full of cavities (see Derry, D.E. Annales du Service des Antiquités de l'Égypte Vol. 40 (1940), pp. 969-970.)