The dental aesthetic of symmetrical white teeth is a modern European standard, but for many people the dental ideal involves carved, stained and/or bejeweled teeth. This is because artificially modified front teeth can communicate cultural affiliation, determine physical attractiveness, and indicate status.
These extreme forms of body modification have been practiced by cultures around the world for thousands of years using chisels, machetes, leaves, soot, and drills. But thanks to modern advancements in dentistry, people in the Western world can make similar dental statements without the pain or long-term commitment using temporary porcelain caps.
Ohaguro is the Japanese custom of dyeing teeth black and was practiced for hundreds of years by women, noblemen, and samurai. Not only were black teeth considered physically attractive, but the tradition also had health benefits like preventing cavities and gum disease. Intentional staining of teeth was also performed in parts of China and Southeast Asia.
Archaeologists working on the Philippine island of Palawan discovered graves with teeth that displayed evidence of deliberate tooth dyeing. Dating to about 2600 BC, it is one of the earliest recorded cases of deliberate dental staining. The dyeing of teeth is still practiced in parts of Southeast Asia, like the Philippines, Vietnam, and Borneo. Indigenous groups in these regions chew betels or small pieces of lacha for red staining, or use soot from guava wood or the Benguet pine for blackened teeth.
A type of tooth staining is performed today with teeth tattoos. Called a dental stain tattoo, the artwork is not directly applied to teeth, but to a cap or a crown, and can be left in place for years – just like traditional porcelain crowns. In this process, the dentist takes an impression of the tooth where the crown will be fitted. Then the tooth mold is sent to a lab where the design is added to the crown and then fired at 212 degrees.
Dental Etching and Filing
For thousands of years, indigenous populations all over the world have etched patterns, like cross-hatch and parallel lines, into the enamel of their teeth. Archaeologists have found evidence of intentional dental carvings in graves found in North America, Mesoamerica, Europe, Africa, and Asia.
The Vikings lived in Scandinavia from AD 750-1100 and were just as famous for their advances in maritime navigation as their raids on villages and monasteries. They also had a reputation for being filthy and unrefined, but Vikings actually spent a lot of time on their appearance. Archaeologists have unearthed evidence that Vikings groomed their beards and used hot rocks to iron their clothes.
There is also evidence that they etched striations into their teeth then painted the striations with red resin and charcoal as a way to intimidate their enemies. Archaeologists have found skulls with horizontal lines engraved in the front teeth in Sweden, Denmark, and England.
In 2005 Caroline Arcini published her research on Viking dental filing in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Arcini looked at the skulls of 24 men from the Viking Age (ca. 800-1050 AD) found in Sweden and Denmark that had 2 or more horizontally, parallel lines in the teeth.
In 2009 archaeologists discovered a mass grave in Dorset, England with 51 beheaded skulls and 54 dismembered bodies. The bones in the grave dated to between 970 and 1025 AD, a time when the Vikings were raiding the Anglo Saxons in the UK. One of the skulls in this mass grave had lines carved in the front teeth. Isotope analysis on the teeth revealed that this person was from a Nordic country.
Another form of dental modification is the filing of teeth into different shapes, which has been practiced by people in Mesoamerica, Asia, and Africa for thousands of years. In 2006 archaeologists working in the Malian Sahara found the earliest evidence of artificial dental modification in West Africa with teeth that dated to about 3000 BC and had been chiseled into sharp points. Archaeologists have also found teeth from the Mayan culture that were carved into ornate shapes.
Today, this type of tooth modification is practiced Indonesia. The Mentawai people are an indigenous group in the coastal and rainforest environments of the West Sumatra province of Indonesia. The Mentawai believe women with sharpened teeth are more attractive and the practice establishes a balance between body and soul. Below is a National Geographic video of Mantawai woman who undergoes a painful tooth sharpening ceremony.
Today in the extreme body modification culture, people sharpen their teeth to look like animals. Eric Sprague, known as the Lizardman, is a freak show performer who sharpened his teeth into fangs, had his tongue split in two, and underwent 700 hours of tattooing to look like a lizard. Dennis Avner, known as Stalking Cat, tattooed his face; had whiskers implanted; had his ears, lips, and nose surgically altered; and had is teeth filed and capped to look like a cat.
Because dental filing can weaken teeth, many people choose to sharpen their teeth with porcelain caps. Recently, in Japan a trend called yaeba, or “double tooth,” became popular. Yaeba is a dental procedure where the upper canines are capped with sharpened points to achieve a snaggletooth smile, because it is considered an attractive, youthful trait.
Hundreds of years ago people used inlays to decorate their teeth with precious metals and stones as a way to signal their high social status. An inlay is a solid material, like a jewel or stone, which is set in a drilled cavity of a tooth. The Mayan culture was particularly good at this type of tooth modification.
In addition to architectural and astronomical advancements, the Mayans also had great dental embellishment skills that were used to chisel teeth into different shapes and to set carved stone dental inlays. The Mayan dental bling experts used a round copper tube as a drill, shaped like a drinking straw, and applied a powdered quartz abrasive to cut a circular hole through the tooth enamel. Then inlays made out of jade, pyrite, hematite, turquoise, or quartz were set into the holes. This extreme body modification was reserved for the Mayan upper classes.
In 2013, archaeologists discovered a 1400-year-old mass grave in an artificial cave at the site of the Mayan city Uxul in Mexico. During the excavation the research team found the bodies of 24 people, some of which had been dismembered. The archaeologists working at the site believed the dead in the mass grave were nobles because some of the bodies had jade tooth inlays.
Today celebrities can get the same bejeweled look, without drilling into their teeth, using “grillz.” “Grillz,” or “fronts,” are removable, embellished dental covers made with precious metals like gold and will often have diamonds embedded in them.
Though grillz started out as a fashion statement in the hip-hop community, they evolved into a fashion accessory when celebrities like Madonna, Katy Perry, Rihanna, and Beyonce sported them. There’s a reason they’re for the wealthy – they aren’t cheap. A six-tooth gold front can cost anywhere between $240 and $500, and the prices sky-rocket once diamonds are added.
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