Monday, November 23, 2009

245. The Baseline Scenarios -- Part 21: Tooth Filing/Dental Mutilation

Did HBP file their teeth? There is abundant evidence of tooth filing among both of our pygmy groups, EP and WP:

Ngalla, a [Pygmy] farmer/hunter underwent the not-too-pleasant exercise of teeth filing at the age of 12. Now, he boasts, his teeth have remained intact and still effective at tearing and chewing meat.

"Teeth filing is part of our tradition. We are identified as Bakas through it," explains Ngalla. "We inherited this practice from our ancestors and nobody can stop us from continuing with it," he insists (Teeth Filing: Painfully Pleasant For Baka Pygmies).

The sad and disturbing story of Ota Benga, an Mbuti Pygmy who wound up on exhibit in the Bronx Zoo, is told on this Wikipedia website. Might as well put him on exhibit here too, since this picture is a fine example of what Mbuti style tooth filing looks like.

Bushmen also file their teeth, apparently (see van Reenen JF, 1978, "Tooth Mutilation amongst the Peoples of Kavango and Bushmanland, South West Africa (Namibia)." J. Dent. Assoc. S. Afr. 33:205-218 and van Reenen JF, 1978, "Tooth Mutilating Practices amongst the Ovambo and the West Caprivi Bushmen of South West Africa (Namibia)." J. Dent. Assoc. S. Afr. 33:665-671).

Many other African tribal groups also have tooth filing traditions:

Dental mutilation, also known as intentional dental modification, is an interesting cultural practice that has enjoyed a long and diverse history in many populations around the globe. There are many explanations for groups to artificially alter the morphology of their teeth. For instance, some researchers believe dental modifications are indicative of beautification (Fastlicht 1976; Romero 1958; RubĂ­n de la Borbolla 1940), ethnic markers or tribal identification (Handler 1994; van Reenen 1978a, 1978b, 1986), and social status (Fastlicht 1948, 1976).

From Maya Dental Mutilation, by Dr. Herman Smith:
The ancient Maya practiced dental mutilation over a very long span of time, beginning centuries ago and carried out right up until the European intrusions of the sixteenth century. Teeth were filed into points, ground into rectangles and drilled with small holes to permit the insertion of small round pieces of jade or polished iron pyrite (fool's gold). In all, over a hundred different patterns of cross-hatching, circular holes and shape alteration are found among the ancient Maya.

From Balinese Religion:

This important life-cycle event usually occurs when a Balinese boy or girl reaches puberty-at a girl's first menstruation, when a boy's voice changes. If not then, it must definitely take place before marriage; sometimes filing is incorporated into the marriage ceremony. After filing, a father's duties to his female children are generally regarded as complete.

[Added 11-26: I neglected to mention that Balinese tooth filing does not involve pointing but on the contrary blunting of the canines to remove their natural points. Whether this is a completely independent tradition or a derivation from an older practice remains unclear.]

[Added 11-23, 6:15 PM: Here is an interesting video I just found depicting tooth filing among the Mentawi on Sumatra, an island in Indonesia:

Note the remarkable similarity to the pointed teeth of the Africans depicted above.]

Since tooth filing is a kind of rite-de-passage among all three of our baseline "feeder" groups, EP, WP and Bu, it looks very much as though it was a part of HBC -- which means that HBC is probably the source of so many of the other tooth filing traditions spread so widely among tribal peoples in so many places. It's possible, however, that this could have been a tradition originating with Bantu peoples and if so, it might have spread to the various pygmy and bushmen groups via the Bantu expansion, ca 3,000 ya. If that's the case, however, then all the other instances, in so many other parts of the world, would have to be regarded as "independent inventions" -- and it's difficult to understand why such a painful -- and essentially non-functional -- custom would have caught on so successfully among so many different groups.

[I probably won't be posting again till after the holidays. Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers. And to the rest: be happy anyhow.]


Glen said...

Interesting points, but I'd like to point out that while the act of tooth filing may be common to many people, what actually gets filed and why may be different. Particularly with the example of the Balinese, who file their teeth -flat-, intentionally removing the points especially of the canine teeth. The association of pointed teeth with demons, witchcraft, and generally undesirable and "animal" behavior would make comparing their ritual with the photos of the pointed-tooth Africans a pretty hard sell unless you're willing to lump the practice together with all forms of painful initiation rites. Or perhaps it's a sort of reversal of meaning, where somehow over time the filing itself remained but there was a disassociation with more "primitive" pointed teeth? In any case, it's certainly not a "non-functional" tradition. The function is to enhance identification, you know who is who when some people file their teeth and others do not.

Happy holidays!

DocG said...

Thanks, Glen, for "pointing" out the difference between the Balinese custom of tooth unpointing and the African one of pointing. However, notice the pointed teeth in the video of the Mentawi tooth filing ceremony I just added to the post. It looks to me as though the Balinese version is a deliberate reversal of the original, rather than a completely independent invention. For more on the "identity of opposites" see Hegel -- and Freud.

German Dziebel said...

"It looks to me as though the Balinese version is a deliberate reversal of the original, rather than a completely independent invention."

This kind of observations work better for me than simple similarities. I've always liked the Levi-Straussian theory of myth precisely for its ability to identify reversals in myths, rituals and material culture that bring out underlying identities better than superficial similarities.

From what I can see, tooth mutilation practices are a fraction of other mutilations focused on the head, including lip mutilation, ear mutilation and head deformation. It'd be good to see how they are distributed around the world and in Africa. Sorry, Victor, I'm again giving you more work.

Maju said...

Has tooth modification any relation with the common African practice of tooth extraction, which has the very practical purpose of allowing feeding if paralyzed by tetanus?