Human tooth sharpening

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Ota Benga, a famous Congolese pygmy, exhibits sharpened teeth.
A man with filed teeth (probably Mentawai) smokes in a photograph by Dutch photographer Christiaan Benjamin Nieuwenhuis who worked in Sumatra

Human tooth sharpening is the practice of manually sharpening the teeth, usually the front incisors. Filed teeth are customary in various cultures. Many remojadas figurines found in part of Mexico have filed teeth and it is believed to have been common practice in their culture. The Zappo Zap people of the Democratic Republic of Congo are believed to have filed their teeth.

Historically it was done for spiritual purposes, with some exceptions, but in modern times it is usually aesthetic in nature as an extreme form of body modification.[1]


Many cultures have practiced this form of body modification. In Bali, in a ritual known as Potong gigi or cut teeth, teenagers have their canine teeth filed down because it was thought they represented negative emotions such as anger and jealousy.[2] It was also seen as a way to spiritually separate them from their animalistic instincts and ancestors.[2] After this tradition is completed the teens are now considered adults and are allowed to have sex and marry.[2] During this ritual the person receiving the procedure is dressed in very nice traditional clothing and would traditionally be carried from place to place by their parents as they are not allowed to touch the ground.[2] This is done to avoid encountering evil forces. In a more modernized version of the ritual the teen would wear socks to walk from place to place in order to stay off the ground.[2]

In the past (1910) the African Herero people have participated in forms of tooth sharpening. Both the boys and girls at puberty would have four of their lower teeth knocked out. This was followed by the top teeth being sharpened to points (think an inverted “V”). The tribe regarded this tradition as a form of beauty. It was said that a girl that has not undergone this procedure would not be able to attract a lover.[3]

In Ancient China, a group called Ta-ya Kih-lau (打牙仡佬, literally 仡佬 (Gelao people) who beat out their teeth") had every woman about to wed knock out two of her anterior teeth to "prevent damage to the husband's family."[4] Some cultures have distinctions between which sex does what to their teeth. In the central Congo region, the Upoto tribe has men file only teeth in the maxillary arch, whereas women file both maxillary and mandibular arches.[5]

The Mentawai people have also traditionally engaged in this practice.[6] The Mentawai people believed that the soul and body were separate. If the soul was not pleased by its body it would leave and the person would die. As a result, the Mentawai people started modifying their bodies to be more beautiful. In Mentawai culture, those with teeth that have been sharpened are deemed more beautiful. Tooth sharpening would have been traditionally done at puberty. Though contact with outside civilizations have resulted in a decline of tooth sharpening.[7] The Mentawai people use a sharpened chisel and another object that acts as a hammer. They use no anesthetics or pain killers, and bite down on a piece of wood.[8] Green bananas are bitten on to reduce pain after the procedure.[7]

David Livingstone mentions a number of African tribes who practice teeth-filing, including the Bemba, Yao, Makonde, Matambwe, Mboghwa and Chipeta.[9]

Koesbardiati, Toetik mentions Indonesion tribes that practice human teeth sharpening in the Prehistoric and Islamic populations of Indonesia.[10][11] In the Prehistoric Population from Java, Bali, Sumba, and Flores, dental modifications primarily occurred in canines and incisors  but not all of the modifications were for survival.[11] The extraction method practiced by the Flores was for beauty purposes.[11] Human teeth sharpening also continued to occur during the 17th century but this was mostly practiced by those in nobility or those with social prominence.[12] The skeletal remains in the area show that the dental filling occurred.[11]

Examples in the modern world[edit]

  • Ota Benga was a Congolese pygmy imported to a zoo in the United States whose front teeth were sharpened when he was a young boy.
  • Horace Ridler, "the Zebra man", included tooth sharpening as one of many bodily modifications he underwent in order to serve as a circus performer.
  • In the Indonesian population of Bali, there is a sacred religious practice where the maxillary front teeth are filled for the purpose of refraining from evil lust.[11]
  • In the Indonesian population of Timor residents fill the occlusion surface for beauty purposes as it makes the residents feel more comfortable around the others.[11]
  • In the population of the Mentawai people in Indonesia, the wife of the soon-to-be chief decides to have her teeth sharpened because she fears he will leave her if she does not become more beautiful. In their culture having your teeth sharpened is a sign of great beauty.[7]


  1. ^ DeMello, Margo (2007). Encyclopedia of Body Adornment (Illustrated ed.). Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 81. ISBN 0-313-33695-4.
  2. ^ a b c d e VICE Asia (2018-10-30), Grinding Teeth: The Wild Indonesian Coming Of Age Ritual, retrieved 2019-02-13
  3. ^ Frazer, James George (2006). Totemism and Exogamy: A Treatise on Certain Early Forms of Superstition and Society. 4. Kessinger Publishing. p. 188. ISBN 1-4254-9924-4.
  4. ^ Frazer, James George (2006). Totemism and Exogamy: A Treatise on Certain Early Forms of Superstition and Society. 4. Kessinger Publishing. p. 187. ISBN 1-4254-9924-4.
  5. ^ Frazer, James George (2006). Totemism and Exogamy: A Treatise on Certain Early Forms of Superstition and Society. 4. Kessinger Publishing. p. 193. ISBN 1-4254-9924-4.
  6. ^ Ver Berkmoes, Ryan (2010). Indonesia (eBook ed.). Lonely Planet Publications. p. 428. ISBN 1-74104-830-3.
  7. ^ a b c “Teeth Chiseling.” National Geographic, 14 Mar. 2008,
  8. ^ “Mentawai Teeth Sharpening.” Indengenous Education Foundation - IEF, 1 Dec. 2016
  9. ^ "The Last Journals of David Livingstone, in Central Africa. From Eighteen Hundred and Sixty-five to his Death. Continued by a Narrative of his Last Moments and Sufferings, Obtained from his Faithful Servants, Chuma and Susi, by Horace Waller, F.R.G.S., Rector of Twywell, Northhampton". 1875-01-01. Retrieved 2016-12-06.
  10. ^ Koesbardiati, Toetik (2016). Social identity: an interpretation of dental modification practices on Indonesian historical human remains. International Association for Paleodontology. OCLC 985158551.
  11. ^ a b c d e f Koesbardiati, Toetik Murti, Delta Bayu Suriyanto, Rusyad Adi (2015). Cultural Dental Modification in Prehistoric Population in Indonesia. International Association for Paleodontology. OCLC 985158619.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  12. ^ Prayudi, Ashwin Suriyanto, Rusyad Adi Rahmawati, Neni Trilusiana (2018). Teeth of Royalty from a burial in Jera Lompo’E, South Sulawesi, Indonesia. International Association for Paleodontology. OCLC 1041736458.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)

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