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History of tooth adornment part 1 - the ancients

Updated: Jan 25, 2022



If I was to ask when and where tooth adornment started some might say America in the 80's/90's. They wouldn't be totally wrong however, the tradition of decorating teeth with precious metals and gemstones for cosmetic reasons, or as a sign of wealth/status has been around since as far back as 800 AD! Here's a brief history, enjoy!

The Mayans and Filipinos aren't the only civilisations that adorned their teeth there are many more, however these are the two that interested me the most!


The Mayans

The Mayans are credited with being the leaders in cosmetic dentistry in their day. They had highly developed dental skills, not necessarily for oral health but mostly for ritual and religious purposes. The Mayans' ruled over an empire that now includes Mexico and parts of Central America.

Between roughly 250 - 900 CE Mayan royalty would decorate their teeth with pieces of Turquoise, Quartz, Pyrite, Jade and other precious stones. The lighter the Jade the wealthier the wearer was. Jade was a very special stone to the Mayans and royalty, it was worn as a statement that they were responsible for life-giving rain, fertile crops, and ensuring their people were well fed and prosperous. They wanted their people to know that they would keep their promise to take care of them as well as the land.

The gemstones were created as stone inlays and placed in man made cavities in the front teeth. A straw like tube usually made from copper was spun between the hand or in a bow/rope drill; an abrasive slurry of powdered quartz and water was used to cut a round hole through the enamel. Occasionally, a thin, sharpened animal bone hardened by fire may have been used.

An adhesive made from plant sap and crushed bones was used to cement the gemstones in place.

The Mayan tradition stopped after the Spanish conquest in the 1500's however, ancestors of the Mayan living in South East Mexico, Belize, Honduras and Guatemala still carry on the tradition of tooth adornment.


Southeast Asia

Tooth adornment was common practice among pre-colonial Filipinos between the 14th and 16th century. According to Ancient Filipino mythology the creator of the world, Melu had solid gold teeth. The Filipino tribes followed in his footsteps and started filing down and decorating their teeth with gold. They would also cover their front teeth with fitted gold bands. The bands made it impossible to speak but were removed to eat. They were worn for rituals and passed down for generations. The oldest examples date back to 1300AD. Some of the Philippines have over 100 words for gold!

Below is the Bolinao Skull, excavated from a burial site in Balingasay, Pangasinan between the 13th and 15th century. The skulls teeth are adorned with gold pieces with an overlapping fish scale design, which were pegged to the teeth with gold rivets. 8 out of 51 adult skeletons had teeth like this, but only the Bolinao Skull had a full set of teeth with upper and lower adornments.

Here's a vide with some more information on the Bolinao Skull!

That's all for today, hope you enjoyed reading and learning. See you next week!

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