Archaeologists have found that men and women living in West Central Africa 500 years ago dramatically changed their looks by removing their front teeth. The evidence was obtained from ancient skulls deep underground in a cave that could be reached only by rope, through a hole in the cavern’s roof.
The cave contained four levels, and all of them held bones dating to the 14th and 15th centuries. Though the bones were jumbled together, scientists noted that all of the skeletons were complete, “suggesting that cadavers, rather than dry bones, were either thrown from above or lowered into the cave. Near the skeletons, there were also plenty of burial objects, such as bracelets and rings; axes and knives; more than 100 marine shells; and dozens of pierced carnivore teeth. There are very few sites with archaeological human remains for this region.
Of the human remains, the skulls, as all of the intact upper jaws were missing specific teeth: the central and lateral permanent incisors. Four teeth in the very front of the mouth. All of the empty tooth sockets showed signs of healing after the extractions. This known as alveolar resorption indicates that the teeth were removed while their owners were still alive and the holes had enough time to heal before the people died.
The Iroungou skulls clearly weren’t modified as part of a burial rite, given that the gums had healed. The extraction of so many front teeth would have affected pronunciation and changed the shape of the mouth and face in a way that was “highly visible,” indicating that all such individuals belonged to a particular group. Tooth alterations such as extraction, chipping and filing into points have long been performed across Africa, though the removal of the top four incisors is unusual. Most examples of this practice are in populations from West Central Africa, “suggesting a long history and possible continuity of body-modification customs in the area.