A smile may be universal, but the customs surrounding teeth sometimes seem worlds apart.
The meaning of flashing one's pearly whites has changed drastically over centuries and cultures. From the betel nut stains of Asia to tossing a lost tooth on the roof in Greece, there are countless traditions that tell unique stories. Believe it or not, not everyone around the globe wants white teeth. In fact, a blackened smile is actually prized in some Japanese societies.
Today, most Americans seek white teeth, a cultural norm for our day. And there's plenty of logic behind it. Research shows white teeth indicate a proper level of health, while plaque and tartar buildup found on yellowed enamel can lead to infections and diseases such as tooth decay, gum disease and other oral health problems.
One's mouth is the window to overall health, but it may also provide a peek into other cultural traditions across the world. In our first installment of "Smile traditions from across the globe," let's take a look at the ancient Vikings.
The Vikings: A grisly grin
Known as a brutal warriors and nomadic tradesmen, the Vikings actually took great pride in their looks. The Norsemen lived in Scandinavia from around 750 to 1100 A.D. and had the unique tradition of filing their teeth. A Swedish anthropologist analyzed hundreds of Viking skeletons dating from 800 to 1050 A.D. and found a handful of them bore deep horizontal grooves across their upper front teeth. It's the first time that dental modification - a custom practiced around the world during that time period - was discovered in Europe.
"Vikings are well known for their acquisitive habits, but until now we've thought of this in terms of gold, silver, and booty, not facial decoration," William Fitzhugh, a Viking expert at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., told National Geographic.
The marks were etched deep into the enamel and may have had charcoal or other coloring rubbed into them. Fascinatingly, they were believed to be aesthetic rather than functional. While it is unclear exactly why the Vikings modified their teeth, the filed furrows likely represented a certain kind of achievement.
"Maybe they were brave warriors who got a furrow each time they won a battle or tradesmen who traveled together," Caroline Arcini, an anthropologist at the National Heritage Board in Lund, Sweden, speculated to National Geographic.
Adopted dental customs
But if no other European culture exhibited this tradition at the time, where did it come from?
Since the Vikings were seasoned travelers, pillaging land to land, researchers hypothesize they picked up the custom from a foreign territory.
"Maybe they adopted the idea of mutilating their teeth from people they met on their voyages," Arcini explained to the source.
They might have discovered the practice when they encountered West Africans who filed their teeth, though West African teeth were filed into sharp points instead of flat edges. Other scientists suggest the Vikings picked it up on their travels to North America. Geographical areas where this custom used to be prevalent were not far from your present-day home in the current states of Arizona, Illinois and Georgia.
The Vikings traveled to North America around 1000 A.D., nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World. It's possible that they learned the custom from the Native Americans, some of whom had dental grooves.
Wherever tooth carving originated from, the Vikings' custom represents a truly astounding fashion statement that gives us a look into ancient smiles.
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