Teeth Filing, Blackening, and Other Dental Modifications in Asia – Until We Brushed It Off

When you think of dental modification, you probably think about dental braces and the awkward teenage years. But we are talking about the manipulation of human dentition prevalent in many societies, both historically and in current contexts. These are the kind of dental modifications that are done as an important life-changing rituals and even beauty enhancing procedures.

If you’re a native Malaysian, Indonesian, Bruneian, Filipino or Singaporean, there’s a high chance that you’re an Austronesian. Thanks to our kick-ass sailors of ancestors, there are also Austronesian peoples in Oceania and even as far as East Africa. Despite covering such a vast area from Madagascar to Polynesia (we’re looking at you, Moana!), one of the most defining features shared among our Austronesian ancestors was dental modification (another one is tattooing, but that’s a story for another day).

Our Austronesian ancestors saw the carnivorous canines and incisors as an indication of the savage and animalistic aspects of the soul and therefore need to be smoothed away. Filing the tooth to keep one’s animal instincts in check is an important rite of passage across the Austronesian peoples which predates the arrival of foreign religions.

1. Ancient Dental Modifications among the Taiwanese Aborigines

Whenever we have a question about ancestral customs in Austronesian societies, we usually look for the answer in Taiwan. Many Taiwanese aborigines, including major groups like Atayal and Bunut peoples, have a history of dental modification.

In the past, the Taiwanese aborigines tattooed their body and filed their teeth in coming-of-age initiation rituals, but these customs have gradually disappeared due to the changes in governments and conversion to Christianity.

Despite its disappearance in the ancestral homeland, dental modification can still be found within the various ethnic groups of Southeast Asia.  

2. Teeth Sharpening in Mentawai Islands, Indonesia

Although the process is excruciating, the semi-nomadic tribe of the Mentawais believe that sharpened teeth would make them more attractive to the opposite sex. But more than just what meets the eyes, the Mentawai tribes believe that teeth filing is a way to maintain a balance between the body and the soul.

In the beginning, the spirits and humans were one. But at one point in time, their worlds split in two. Despite living separately, the humans are always under the threat of the spirits if they don’t take care of their own souls. Body modification such as teeth filing and tattoos are seen as ways to make the soul happy.

3. Dental Jewelry in Borneo

The Dayaks, a loose term that includes all indigenous tribes of the island of Borneo (shared by three independent countries of Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, and Malaysia), were known to have practised a wide variety of dental modifications. The reason behind these practices could be purely aesthetic, but it was also a method to differentiate between classes or tribes. It was common to see the tribes with teeth that were filed to a point and coloured black by the application of burnt coconut shell mixed with oil.

It is assumed that their reason of varnishing their teeth black was because white teeth were seen as suitable only for dogs and Europeans. And if you thought that only hip-hop artists wear grills (jewelry worn over the teeth), you’d be wrong. Because some Dayak tribes wore thin brass plugs fashioned from metal wire over their incisors and hooked onto the molars. Now that’s what we call blingin’!

SEE ALSO: 7 Essentials Facts About Gawai, Kaamatan, And Other Harvest Festivals In Borneo

4. Teeth Blackening in Mindanao, the Philippines

Just like in Borneo, many tribes in Mindanao didn’t really care about the modern Western beauty standards of pearly white teeth. Their reasoning to blacken their teeth was also similar: as animals have white teeth, it is only natural for humans to have black choppers. This practice is common in major ethnic groups like the B’laan, Bagobo and Manobo who saw black teeth as a sign of beauty and prestige.

Teeth filing and blackening usually came as a combo for members of the community who had reached the age of puberty as a rite of passage. After the teeth had been blackened, they were then blackened using a soot made from a special kind of tree.

5. Teeth Flattening in Bali, Indonesia

As most Balinese are Hindus, the ancient Austronesian tradition of tooth filing has merged with elements from Hinduism and Buddhism island-wide. Performed by a Brahmin priest, mepandes/metatah/mesangih is seen as a way to control kama (desire), kroda (anger), lobha (greed), moha (confusion), matsarya (jealousy) and mada (drunkenness). Instead of being pointy, the teeth are sharpened to a straight and regular edge.

Unlike in Borneo and Mindanao where dental modification practice is facing extinction, the teeth filing tradition is alive and well in Bali. It is important to note that tooth filing is virtually unheard of in India, but in Bali, the ritualised tooth filing is obligated for everyone when he or she comes of age.

6. A Harmony Between Tradition and Religion in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia

Dental modification among the Austronesians has been on a decline for centuries. Part of the reason is the desire to be ‘modern’ by adopting Westernised beauty standards. The other one is the major conversion to new religions which might have an unfavourable view on the practice. Among Muslims, there is an argument that filing the teeth for the purpose of beautification is haram (forbidden).

But some ethnic groups in Indonesia have found a way to harmonise tradition with religion. The Kaili ethnic group, for example, has a teeth filing tradition called nokeso or novati which is an important coming-of-age ritual for boys and girls who have reached baligh (a term in Islam to refer to an individual who have reached maturity or puberty and is accountable for his or her deeds). An occasion to welcome new members of the community, it is a big feast that involves the entire village.

SEE ALSO: These Puppets In Penang Are Over 100 Years Old! But The Art Is Slowly Dying

7. Teeth Filing in Eastern Lesser Sunda Islands, Indonesia

The eastern part of Lesser Sunda Islands is particularly interesting as it is a place with a mixed Austronesian and Melanesian cultures. In other words, this is where Asia and Oceania meet. For several ethnic groups living across the archipelago, teeth filing is an important signifier that someone is of age. As the process involves simple sharpening stone with no dental anaesthesia, it is a painful experience that every young person has to go through if they want to be seen as eligible for marriage.

It’s not a cheap affair either, as parents have to prepare a feast for the whole village. Luckily, their neighbours will usually help out by bringing pigs, goats, vegetables, moke (rice wine), even mats for guests to sit on.

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Written by Ari Vanuaranu

Albeit claiming to be a vegetarian, this self-professed culture vulture says that he’s willing to make an exception every time he is in an exotic place, as trying the local food is essential to widening a traveller’s horizon. But then each and every single place in the world outside of his hometown in Indonesia’s South Borneo counts as an ‘exotic place’...

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