Face-tattooing, dental ablation and other body scarification and modification practices from the South

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The Jomon shared a number of ritual body modification practices with the Yue and other tribal peoples of the south. A question often uppermost in our minds is this:

Did the Jomon people borrow from Southern “Barbarian” practices or was it the other way around?

Below are excerpts from Roger Blench’s papers “The Prehistory of the Daic (TaiKadai)speaking peoples and the Hypothesis of an Austronesian Connection” presented at the 12th EURASEAA meeting Leiden, 1-5th September, 2008:

“Early texts describe the minorities of South China, and modern ethnography records distinctive practices such as dental mutilation and teeth-blackening, which show links to Taiwan.

Some of these, at least can be confirmed in the archaeological record. Common synchronic material culture, such as idiosyncratic musical instruments, may also be used as additional evidence.
… if something common among many groups then it may simply be diffused and thus not relevant. Moreover, common features in the culture of South China can be shared with island SE Asia as part of the Austronesian heritage, and are thus interesting but not useful for this argument. But combining textual references and ethnography can suggest directions in which to look. Early texts describe the minorities of South China, and modern ethnography records distinctive practices such as dental mutilation and teeth-blackening, which show links to Taiwan.
Some of these, at least can be confirmed in the archaeological record. Common synchronic material culture, such as idiosyncratic musical instruments, may also be used as additional evidence.

Yue (越) was a general name for a complex of loosely related ethnic groups which inhabited broad areas of southern China, often referred to as Bai yue (Hundred Yue). According to Records of The Late Han Dynasty – a History of the Southern Aborigines, ‘The two prefectures, Zhuya and Dan’er were on the island, about one thousand li east to, 500 li (~ 250 km) from south to north. The headman of the aborigines living there thought it was noble to make their ears long, so the people there all bored holes in their earlobes, and pulled them down close to their shoulders…. and called it Dan’er.’ Sima Qian (1993) in the section, Record of the Southwest and Southern Barbarians, part of Records of the Grand Historian (史記) in his states that the ancestors of the Dai in Yunnan were the Dian Yue (滇越). Fan Chuo (1961) in A Survey of the Aborigines (Tang Dynasty) refers to them as ‘Black Teeth’ and as ‘Face-Tattooed’. Photo 1 shows a terracotta excavated in Yunnan that almost certainly represents a tattooed face.

Tattooing on the face was common with most Taiwanese groups. Under the Japanese occupation there was a violent and ultra-cruel campaign to eliminate it, hence it is hardly seen today. Figure 3 shows a set of Atayal tattooing equipment. Tattooing is noted as a feature of the Yue in early Chinese descriptions and is still practised among groups such as the Gelao and Dulong today. Photo 2 shows typical face tattooing among the Trung [=Dulong], a Sino-Tibetan group in Yunnan. Tattooing is widespread but patchy in the region especially in the Austronesian world. For example, it is not typical of the Northern Philippines, but occurs in Borneo and Polynesia (Hambly 1925; Gilbert 2001). It does occur in Japan and Siberia, but in China proper it is never on the face and has a strong association with criminality (Ceresa 1996; Chen Yuanming 1999); hence its salience for Chinese historians of the ‘Southern Barbarians’.

4.3.3 Dental ablation or evulsion

Dental ablation or evulsion is the deliberate taking out of teeth, most notably
the front incisors, but often others as well. It can be detected in the archaeological record as well as in ethnographic accounts, but has tended to disappear in recent times, like many types of permanent body mutilation.
Dental ablation has a worldwide distribution: for example, it is common in the Lakes Region of Central Africa (Frazer 1910). It occurs in Siberia and Jomon period Japan, although there is some debate about whether the ablation seen in skeletal material was intentional or simply loss through use.

Its pattern in the SE Asian region is quite striking. It is not in use generally in
island SE Asia (though see Van Rippen 1918) but is common on Taiwan (and incidentally associated with the millet harvest in some groups). Photo 3 shows a Tsou woman on Taiwan with dental ablation, photographed by Segawa in the 1930s (Yuasa 2000: 61). Yuasa (2000: 39) also reproduces a series of photographs of Tsou men, showing both ablation and teeth blackening.
Ablation is recorded ethnographically and archaeologically in South China (and some sites in North China). Zhu Feisu (1984) reports ablation from pre-Qin sites in Guangdong. Chinese records also mention dental ablation and teeth colouring (Mote 1964). The Tianbao shilu (Veritable Record of the Celestial Treasure Reign period) says that ‘the Jiu mountains in Rinan county are a connected range of an unknown number of li. A Luo (lit. naked) man lives there. He is a descendant of the Bo people. He has tattooed his chest with a design of flowers. There is something like purple-coloured powder that he has painted below his eyes. He has removed his front two teeth, and he thinks of it all as beautiful decoration.’

Ethnographically, a number of Daic peoples of South China still practise ablation. Photo 4 shows a Tai woman with her two bottom front teeth removed.
Ethnographically, a number of Daic peoples of South China still practise ablation. Photo 4 shows a Tai woman with her two bottom front teeth removed. Tapp & Cohn (2003) have republished an eighteenth century album of ‘Savage Southern Tribes’ showing pre-marital dental ablation among the Gelao [Qiao] a Daic group (Photo 5).

The distribution of dental ablation on the mainland in archaeological sites is also quite indicative. There is no record of its occurring in Daic-speaking peoples in Thailand today. The most comprehensive review of SE Asian dental ablation is Tayles (1996) who describes its occurrence at Khok Phanom Di.
Sangvichien et al. (1969) report ablation from Ban Kao. Nelsen et al. (2001) argue for its presence at Noen U-Loke in NE Thailand (ca 200 BC to ca 500 AD). However, it is extremely common in dental material from Northern and central Thailand from about 3500 BP onwards1. Oxenham (2006) reports possible cases of ablation from the Da But period sites in Northern Vietnam. Photo 6 shows two skulls excavated in South China which also clearly illustrate dental ablation. The patterning shows that this cannot possibly be accidental tooth loss.

4.2.4 Teeth blackening Teeth-blackening is distinct from betel-chewing and uses plant derived dyes to colour the teeth. It is reported among the various minorities on Taiwan, including the Tsou (see above). Chen (1968:256) says ‘Tooth-blacking was also common among the Paiwan and Ami’. Tooth blackening is also common among various Yunnan minorities and is referred to in the Chinese historical sources cited above. The usual plant used for this purpose, both in Taiwan and Yunnan is the fevervine, Paederia scandens (Photo 7) (see also Yuasa 2000: 61). However, teeth-blackening is also common among the Vietnamese (an Austroasiatic-speaking people). Here is Frank (1926:168); ‘about marriage time, which in Annam is early in life, every Annamese, of either sex, is expected to have his teeth lacquered black by a process said to be very painful….and to the Annamese a person is handsome only if his teeth were jet-black. ‘Any dog can have white teeth’ say the Annamese, looking disparagingly at Europeans.’”

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