“Chiseling teeth, Mentawai Island,” circa 1938, Indonesia byTropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
Beginning from ancient Etruscan and Maya times, which were also marked with animist religions, dental bridges and gem implants reigned prominent and were employed primarily as a way to demonstrate status. Slowly, trends worldwide began to sway in favor of tooth filing, removal, and blackening with the introduction of polytheistic religious practices. As colonialism, industrialization, modern medicine, monotheism, and globalization swept the globe, yet another new trend came into fashion, involving dentures, braces and tooth-whiteners.
As such, cultures were heavily influenced by their religions, and in turn, by their connection with the earth and natural resources surrounding them. For example, while animist religions viewed every tree, stream, and monkey as a living entity with a soul, and therefore bestowed a certain level of importance upon them, monotheistic practices largely viewed nature as a resource to burn through, creating a distance from one’s environment that has even led to severe consequences for the well-being of the earth. There were also positive and neutral changes that came from this, one of which includes evolution in the field of dental modification.
The Reasons Behind the Practice
Documented reasons for purely aesthetic dental modifications include those below. The list represents the most common attributed reasons for why cultures and individuals have altered their teeth, however, as dental modifications evolve within a culture, the reasoning can evolve and change as well.
- To intimidate
- To show social status
- To attract
- To self identify
- As an inititiation
- As a reflection of the spiritual
- As an act of mourning
- As a community
The Progression of Dental Modifications Throughout History
Around 700 to 600 BC appears the first evidence of Etruscan golden dental bridges among elite women. The Etruscans were the first society to experiment with dentures and false teeth, which were taken from humans or other animals such as oxen. In order to be fit for the bridges, women would sometimes have their teeth forcibly removed. This was a symbol of high status, among other reasons because it showed a woman’s access to soft bread and cooked foods. This process was later ended with the encroachment of the Roman Empire, which is demonstrated through a quote by the Roman poet Martial: “Nor do you lay aside your teeth at night any differently than you do your silk dresses, [which are] packed away in a hundred boxes… You use your teeth and hair that are bought and you are not embarrassed. What will you do about your eye, though, Laelia? They don’t sell them.”
Maya rulers in modern-day Central America began employing the practice of dental inlays around 300 B.C., after already experimenting with dental filing. The most popular gem used was jade, which was believed to have brought agricultural fertility and prosperity to the civilization. A treasured gem, it was also frequently used in plaques, funerary masks, jewelry, and other art forms. Much like with the Etruscans, the arrival of Spanish conquerers squashed this cultural tradition, but between 300 AD to 900 AD the practice flourished among royalty.
Among populations in the Philippines emerged in 1300 B.C. the first evidence of intentional tooth blackening, reddening, filing, and gold capping. A creator god, Melu, is said to have gold teeth and may have inspired this trend. Italian explorer Antonio Pigafetta documents this practice in the early 1500s when he describes a man as having “three spots of gold on every tooth and his teeth appeared as if bound with gold.” Although this practice was largely stamped out with the arrival of the Spanish, archaeological evidence reveals its widespread use in what is known as the Philippines.
Shown is a member of the Mentawai tribe of Indonesia with a cigar. The group is characterized by heavy bodily modifications such as tattoos and chiseled teeth. Teeth sharpening is considered a form of beautification that pleases one’s inner spirit for the Mentawai. The ritual is undertaken with no pain medicines or anesthetics as part of a traditional coming-of-age ceremony, and is still practiced today. The modification is believed to prolong life and aid in finding a suitable mate.
Evidence of horizontal tooth filing in the Viking population begins around 900 AD, and is observed only among males. Examples of this practice are found primarily on the island of Gothand, a place known for foreign influences, but are also distributed throughout Scandinavia. Although the exact reason for this modification is unknown, it is speculated to have been used by men going into battle, perhaps to imitate the shark or as a symbol of group unity or good fortune.
Known as “ohaguro” in Japan and referenced in many Oriental texts, the practice of teeth blackening rose to popularity among aristocrats until its abolishment by the government in 1870. During the Muromachi period, women in particular dyed their teeth black using a mixture of tannin powder and an acetate solution to demonstrate beauty and marital status.