THE MORE THINGS CHANGE…
It’s easy to think of a clean, straight, white smile as beautiful. Every fashion model and celebrity we know seems to have a gleaming set of pearly whites. In the United States alone we spend over 100 billion dollars every year on dental care–more than $300 per person–and that doesn’t include time and money spent brushing and flossing.
We do this because it is our standard, not just of beauty, but of overall health and happiness. But around the world, and throughout history, that hasn’t always been the case.
EARLY AMERICAN BLING
There may actually be precedent for the glittering “grills” of some hip-hop stars. Evidence now shows that sophisticated dentistry allowed Meso-Americans to add bling to their teeth as far back as 2,500 years ago.
According to an analysis of teeth examined from collections in Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, the people of pre-Colonial Mexico went to “dentists” to beautify their teeth with notches, grooves, and semiprecious gems.
This happened long before the Spanish conquests of the 1500s, and like the dental decorations of today, the gems weren’t marks of social class but instead meant for pure decoration. In fact, the royals of the day, such as the Red Queen, a mummy found in a temple at Palenque, don’t have teeth decorations.
So perhaps like the urban “bling” of today, bejeweled teeth had more to do with attitude than status.
Extreme dentistry isn’t exclusive to warmer climes. Several Viking-era burial sites in Sweden and Denmark have found elaborately filed teeth belonging to men.
According to Swedish anthropologist Caroline Arcini, “The marks were cut deep into the enamel and occurred often in pairs or triplets. I can conclude that the filed furrows in the front teeth of 24 Viking men are deliberately made and not the result of using the teeth as a tool.”
Arcini also notes that the marks indicate that a person of great skill filed them.
Why the Viking men had their teeth modified remains a mystery, but it’s likely that the marks represented some kind of achievement, or were a means of social identification. They may have been brave warriors who got a furrow each time they won a battle, or were a group of tradesmen who traveled together.
Perhaps like today’s soldiers who often get tattoos indicating their branch of service, Vikings marked their teeth as a sign of respect and honor.
WHITE IS THE NEW BLACK
A white smile hasn’t always been considered beautiful. In Asian countries, tooth blackening, or ohaguro, signified wealth and sexual maturity, especially for women in Japanese society. For centuries, women would color their teeth by drinking an iron-based black dye that was tempered with cinnamon and other aromatic spices. All this so they could achieve the illusion of black lacquered teeth.
Although the origin of ohaguro is unknown, its meaning is rich with both practical and symbolic purpose. On the practical side, blackened teeth generally held up against decay better than untreated teeth.
In a fascinating post on tooth blackening at The Gloss, Erin L. Thompson similarly connects ohaguro to “the cultural practice, still widespread in Asia, of women holding their hands in front of their mouths while laughing.”
Regardless of gender, bright white teeth simply were considered inhuman, evocative of demons and dogs. The fashion persisted for centuries, and it was only Western influence that largely scrubbed out the beauty of blackened teeth in the early 20th century. But even today, tooth blackening still exists in some rural communities in Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia.
So while our straight, white teeth seem pretty normal in this day and age, who knows? Maybe in the future our straight, white, unmarked, unbedazzled teeth will be seen as strange, old fashioned, or even downright barbaric.