Bayaka pygmy net-hunter Matta Alfred bears his sharpened teeth in the forests of the Congo basin, near Bayanga in the Central African Republic, 23 Sept 2015. In his group of 12 hunters two men and two women had chosen to sharpen their teeeth becasue it is considered attractive. The others said they had chosen not to becase the process of chipping away the enamel with a knife or a machete was too painful.

The Teeth Sharpening Culture in Africa

Human tooth sharpening is the practice of manually sharpening the teeth, usually the front incisors. Filed teeth are customary in various cultures.

Historically it was done for spiritual and identification purposes, but in modern times it is usually aesthetic in nature as an extreme form of body modification.

Bayaka pygmy net-hunter Matta Alfred bears his sharpened teeth in the forests of the Congo basin, near Bayanga in the Central African Republic – Jerome Starkey

One of the most intriguing body modification practices was the teeth sharpening ritual that prevailed in parts of Africa, particularly, central Africa, eastern and southern Africa in the early 18th century. Although they also modified the body with tribal marks, which is more popular in West Africa, for many ethnic groups in Central and southern Africa, tattooing and teeth sharpening were more prevalent with the latter being the most popular.

The teeth sharpening ritual is most popular among the Makonde people in southeast Tanzania and northern Mozambique, the majority of ethnic groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo including the Bopoto and the Zappo Zap people. Some tribes in the Central African Republic, the Bemba of Zambia, and even the Yao of Malawi and parts of Zambia also practised the teeth sharpening ritual.

Teeth sharpening was done for various reasons among these tribes. For some, the ritual was done to initiate young boys and girls who had reached puberty into adulthood. For these people, it was done during the adulthood rites of passage mainly because at that age they would be able to endure the pain to show that they were indeed ready for adulthood this was mainly among tribes in Congo and the Central African Republic and Gabon.

For other tribes, the teeth sharpening ritual was a general part of their custom and any person belonging to such a tribe was expected to have sharpened teeth at an expected age. In parts of Sudan, where indigenous tribes existed, the teeth sharpening ritual was also done for spiritual protection especially when one was seeking spiritual strength or chosen as a spiritual leader.

Africa | Baka Pygmies. Eastern Cameroon | ©Quim Fàbregas

Other reasons for the teeth sharpening trend is for men to look like animals such as the crocodile as a sign of masculinity. This is a common belief among the Pare people in Tanzania. Among the Upoto tribespeople in central Congo, the teeth sharpening ritual was done according to sexes. Men filed only one tooth while women filed more than one, especially before marriage. One of the most popular Congolese to have his teeth sharpened in ancient Africa is Ota Benga who was taken from his home and into zoos in the USA to be displayed.

Several other tribes like the Makonde people performed the teeth sharpening ritual to make their people more beautiful. Among these people, more women had their teeth sharpened and were a symbol of beauty.

An Ethiopian woman with sharpened teeth

The teeth sharpening ritual was not done by just anybody as it required great skill and patience to prevent injuring a person while the ritual happened. The sharpening was done by chosen men or women who were believed to be born with the skill gifted to them by the gods and they were able to train chosen people to help them.

With the introduction of education and westernisation, the teeth sharpening ritual died down during the 20th century but is still practised among small indigenous groups in parts of Central Africa who refuse to have contact with modern society.

Teeth Sharpening in Congo (Extreme Tribe: The Last Pygmies)

Resources
– Face2FaceAfrica – The intriguing teeth sharpening culture of Africa that prevailed in the 18th century
– Wikipedia – Human tooth sharpening

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