Teeth and Philippine culture (1)
Doctors, they say, are the most difficult patients, and I suppose I’m no exception. Since a hiking trip in the Peruvian Andes last year, one of third molars (i.e., “wisdom teeth”) had started to ache but I’ve held off going to a dentist, hoping that the pain would subside…with a little help from pain relievers.
Thankfully, the pain disappeared, only to reappear from time to time, and recently it reached a point that I could not bear it anymore (I think many will agree that ngilo, neuralgic pain, can be far worse than hapdi, stabbing pain, or kirot, throbbing pain).
Finally, I visited our family dentist, Dr. Glenn Mercado, and to my profound relief, he managed to remove the tooth that has been causing so much pain for so long.
The visit to the dentist reminded me of human teeth and their importance, much as, months ago, my first intra-pandemic visit to my barber inspired me to write a two-part series on hair and Philippine culture.
Of course, teeth are essential to archeology and physical anthropology. Such is their value that the identification of Homo luzonensis—a distinct human species reported by Florent Détroit, Armand Mijares and team—was in part on the basis of two premolar and three molar teeth found in one individual. More durable in death than in life (tooth-decay-causing bacteria don’t survive, while enamel allows them to last longer than bones), teeth reveal a mouthful of clues about a person: from diet and disease to genetic and migration patterns.
Dental cavities have caused pain even among the earliest humans, but as evidenced by the teeth of Egyptian mummies and the sharp rise of tooth decay over the past centuries, the advent of agriculture and increasing levels of sugar consumption, have made them much worse. In one Cordillera community, a folk healer I interviewed connected tooth decay with the arrival of the first sari-sari store.
Beyond their materiality, teeth have always held cultural significance. For one, they served as markers of the life cycle—as when children lose their “milk teeth” and elders lose their permanent ones. Some traditions surround the former: I still remember being told to hide a tooth I lost so I can make a wish.
Perhaps more significantly, teeth served as part of our bodily aesthetics, inscribed by culture as much as physiology (and pathology). Many precolonial people, for instance, blackened and sharpened their teeth; as evidenced by the “Bolinao skull,” they adorned their teeth with gold. Such was the pervasiveness of aesthetic dentistry that the historian William Henry Scott surmised that early Filipinos must have regarded plain white teeth as undesirable.
Some of these perceptions and practices were continued by indigenous communities until the past century. The anthropologist Thomas Headland documented the then-dwindling practice of teeth filing and blackening among the Casiguran Dumagat in the 1970s, quoting one of them as saying: “If we did not blacken our teeth, we would be an ugly sight, something sickening to behold. We would look dirty.”
Among lowland Christians, the Spanish period led to a different form of dental aesthetics, as evidenced by Rizal’s depiction of Capitan Tiago, who, despite smoking tobacco and chewing buyo, successfully “kept marvelously white both his natural teeth and also the two which the dentist furnished him at twelve pesos each.” Rizal would not have been surprised at the number of teeth whitening products sold today.
Then as now, (prematurely) losing one’s teeth seemed to be viewed negatively and wearing false ones—pustiso comes from the Spanish postiza, meaning fake—was practiced. As part of his caricature of Donya Victorina, Rizal described her as having white teeth that were “falling loose,” and as buying “a set of false teeth” for her husband Don Tiburcio, only to snatch them in one of the funniest episodes in the novel.
Curiously, as Ambeth Ocampo recounted in his Inquirer columns, Rizal himself had unresolved dental issues, and so did Gregorio del Pilar, who was found with “multiple dental caries” alongside gold filling in one of his teeth.
Aside from teeth strength and color, the position (e.g., pagkakapantay-pantay) of teeth has long been a concern for Filipinos, one that has arguably intensified in recent times since it has become amenable to orthodontic modification. In my next column, I will discuss these and other contemporary dental practices.
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