culture club

Walter William Skeat was an anthropologist who in 1900 published his observations on the aborigines of Selangor island (today’s Malaysia). One of the group’s many rituals was “tooth filing”. Yes, “tooth filing”. This process was a rite of passage for the young ladies into womanhood. The community’s “dentist” slowly filed the maidens’ front teeth (without any local anaesthetic!) down to the gum line and the remaining tooth stump was subsequently smoothed by rubbing it with sand.

Perhaps these islanders of yesteryear had greater foresight than we do today.  I can hear the gasps of horror at this assertion. The thought of such heathen acts performed on those poor girls! I suppose their consolation was that the ordeal was quickly over with.

In today’s civilised society, our modern lifestyle can produce pretty much the same effect on our teeth, the differences being that it is a chronic and costly process, and often self-inflicted. For instance, most of us are aware in this age of information wealth, that besides fixed intrinsic risk factors, controllable behaviours like “sugar grazing”, drug and alcohol abuse, and poor oral hygiene practices lead to tooth and gum rot, and their associated adverse symptoms.

Yet we still engage in these activities.  Why do we choose to fulfill this democratic right? Do we lack the self-control to deny processed foods? Are we so time poor that we find it difficult to cook a nutritious meal, or are we simply lazy? Are we brainwashed in our mother’s womb by fads and advertorials? Is the need to rebel an inborn human quality? Perhaps we tend to console ourselves with the notion of having access to the best dental facilities, equipment and treatments available in countering any complications; someone else will fix it (the most common reason for childhood hospitalisation in Australia is tooth decay*).

Well, managing adverse dental outcomes may not be so simple. Teeth can in some ways be likened to cars. When brand new, we tend to drive them hard and fast, and we can be, as Dr Phil says, “in denial” about anything bad happening to them. However, once damaged, even with ongoing repairs, they are never the same again, and are eventually thrown into the trash heap. We can always buy a new car, but substituting a body part with a natural replacement still remains out of our grasp…well, at least for a few years yet…


*Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Australian Hospital Statistics 2008–09. Health Services Series no. 17. Cat. no. HSE 84. Canberra: AIHW, 2010.

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