Higher Human Forms: Balinese Tooth Filing

A Brahmin priest files a woman's teeth. © Anders Ryman/Corbis

Humanity has long struggled with its bestial nature. Suspended as we are between the animal world of our origins and the spiritual ideals we aspire to, how can we vanquish our more savage impulses and retain our standing as a higher species?

The answer lies in bodily transformation, via everything from our clothing and hairstyles to the shape of our teeth.

Yes, our teeth. Humans are omnivores, and are therefore equipped to handle a varied diet. We boast incisors and canines for ripping and tearing, while our molars and premolars handle the grinding.

(© Putu Dodi Suarjaya/Demotix/Corbis)

On the Indonesian island of Bali, those carnivorous teeth are problematic. There, tooth filing is a rite of passage into adulthood and a key indicator of social, aesthetic and spiritual well-being. We're not talking about sharpened points here, but rather the reverse: a general filing down of the carnivorous canines and incisors.

The Balinese smooth away the fang-like qualities of human teeth and, in doing so, smooth away the savage aspects of the soul. Ideally, the ritualized procedure is performed by a Brahmin priest, though your local Balinese dentist can also manage it. For those who can't afford tooth filing, charitable organizations or individuals may step in to sponsor the procedure. And should you be so unfortunate to die with un-modified teeth? Well, then the teeth of your corpse can be filed down to ensure your passage into the spirit realm [source: Brandeis-McGunigl, et al].*

(Independent Picture Service/UIG via Getty)

Balinese tooth-filing (mesangih or mepandes) is an ancient custom that predates Hinduism's arrival on the island in the fifth century BCE. As is often the case, the old ways merged with the new and tooth filing eventually came to reflect a largely Hindu view of the human condition.

British anthropologist Anthony Forge noted that this dental obsession manifests itself in Balinese art as well. The teeth of supernatural entities such as gods and spirits take on exaggerated bestial forms to symbolize the opposite of desired human qualities. You can see an example of this in the image above right: a statue depicting the god Bhoma, the "Son of the Earth" who wards off evil.

Now, before you judge too harshly, remember that tooth filing takes a less extreme form in modern western dentistry, where tooth reshaping or "dental contouring" often serves a largely cosmetic end. And, indeed, take a moment to consider America's secular dental obsession. I think Clarke Johnson DDS, PhD put it well in "The Cultural Modification of Teeth."

"An alien visitor to Earth might describe a tooth-related cult now common in many industrialized societies. The people believe in the tooth cult so unquestionable, they call the holy doers doctor... The cult requires an initiation wherein the holy material objects are fastened to their teeth. They then go through two difficult years of trial until they emerge purified and the holy material objects are taken off in a rite of passage. These people live in a society that admires what it sees on billboards, in magazines and a mystical place they call Hollywood. Both believers and priests learn their ideals there. The practitioners of the cult have an obsession with lines and angles."

Has anything really changed? We still feel ourselves unfinished in our current bodies. We still alter our anatomy to adhere to some greater form, all in an attempt to transform the inner self.

Higher Human Forms is an ongoing blog series profiling the many fascinating ways in which humans have reshaped their bodies throughout human history. To quote plastic surgeon Joe Rosen, "The body is a conduit for the soul, at least historically speaking. When you change what you look like, you change who you are."

* For a more detailed breakdown of the ceremony (with photos), visit Samantha Brown's Travelfish post on the topic.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.