Modification Around the World: Tooth Filing in Africa

by Lorna

In the Western world it’s becoming more and more common to have what’s known as “intentional dental modification,” a form of body mod in which the teeth or gums are permanently altered.  With the rise in popularity of vampire lore and general monster legend, the pointing of teeth has become especially socially relevant.  So it might surprise you to learn that this practice is equally culturally congruous a world away in Africa.

 map showing the distance to Africa

In many areas of Africa, the indigenous tribes practice different forms of tooth filing, including pointing, separating, and even full removal of the teeth.  This custom is especially prevalent amongst tribes in West Africa and Congo, particularly the various Pygmy groups, including the Baka and Mbuti.  One famous historical case of tooth filing is that of the Pygmy Ota Benga, who was brought to the United States in the early 1900s and placed on display in multiple cultural exhibits.

 the look of filed or modified teeth

The art of tooth filing among the Pygmies is generally performed with a knife, a hammer or heavy blunt object, and a piece of stick or wooden rod.  The stick is placed in the mouth to separate the jaw, and the knife is then struck with the hammer at various angles to the tooth in order to create the desired shape.  Although painful, many tribal members consider this ritual a part of their unique heritage, and continue to willingly undergo such modification.  Commonly the visible teeth across the front of both the upper and lower jaw are filed into points.

Reasons for tribal tooth filing vary, from aesthetic beauty, to cultural identification within a specific group, to rites of passage for tribal youth.  Whatever the reason, the look of the teeth can be rather ferocious, that is, until the subject smiles.  Although identified with evil and legendary creatures in the United States, to the tribesmen of West Africa, tooth filing is common, pleasing, and at times even friendly.

 friendly African woman

With the urbanization of certain areas of Africa, some tribes have met with opposition from local governments, or even their own younger generations when it comes to tooth filing.  The outside world continues to infringe upon their tribal lifestyle, and some factions have largely discontinued many of their traditional modification practices.

by Lorna

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