Ritual tooth ablation: Why did prehistoric people pull perfectly healthy teeth?

The Jomon culture in the Japanese Archipelago, dating from 13,000 to 2300 years BP, practiced this ritual extensively for ceremonial purposes and during rites of passage.

According to FUNAHASHI Kyoko, her observations of tooth ablation through the ages was as follows:

1) In the Final Jomon period, the extraction of upper and lower canines and lower incisors were carried out when the recipients were between 13 and 20 years of age, and the percentages were 80-90%.
2) In the early Yayoi period, the extraction of upper and lower canines and lower incisors was carried out, at percentages of between 80-90%.
3) From the end of the Early Yayoi period, the extraction of upper and lower incisors, canines and premolars were carried out when the recipients were at adult and mature ages, and the percentage was low.

Anthropologists from the University of Nevada who studied Jomon tooth ablation samples detected five types of systems of tooth ablation, mostly based on kinship,  and the following extract contains their reasoning that the tooth ablation was practised because the altered appearance would be crucial for the Jomon person’s identity as well as indicating his or her status within the Jomon community:

The body is a physical symbol of membership in a social community, conveying social information in a permanent manner. It is shaped by and contributes to social rapport (Meskell, 1998). Changes in social environment can affect patterns of body modification, in this case dental ablation (Torres-Rouff, 2009). As the mouth is a primary social organ, teeth are one of the most visible parts of the body that are culturally treated through some form of cultural modification (filing, chipping, insets, ablation, etc.) to construct identity in relation to broader social and political networks (White et al., 2009).

Personal identity is a dynamic, multi-component concept that includes self-defined expressions of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, kinship, politics, religion, and age (Buikstra and Scott, 2009). The self-referential nature of the various parts of identity is limited by archaeological possibilities (Barth, 1969); hence,the body is needed to create a better understanding of how earlier peoples’ self identified social status within a community. Identity research is not a construction of who people were or where they came from, but represents an attempt to define who they thought they were  (Knudson and Stojanowski, 2009:5). It relates to the larger social phenomena that characterize an individual’s existence in society. Identity is a form of habitus   (Bourdieu 1977), indoctrinated into an individual’s sense of self by their culture.

For the Jomon, life milestones were commemorated by the extraction of different tooth classes. The removal of particular teeth immediately marked your place in society. The various examples (Figs. 1, 2,3, 4, 5, & 6) display individuals at different places/ranks within society. With a flash of a smile, one would know the individual’s family, if they were an adult or not, if they were married, if they had experienced the death of a loved one,or if they had children. There was no need to ask as your body openly displayed your identity.

All the common types of ablation noted by other scholars (Harunari. 1979; Kusaka et al., 2008; Kusaka et al., 2009; Temple et al., 2011) were observed in this sample.

Previously unnoted forms of ablation involved the extraction of the upper premolars (Type 4I4C2P in Figs. 6 & 6A) and upper and lowerpremolars Type 4C4P in Figs. 5 & 5A) for an unknown rite of passage. We do not attempt to attribute specific ablation patterns to particular life events, but

Scholars noted that ablation types vary between males and females, as well as between the young and the old, suggesting various levels of identity within the community.

It was considered that tooth ablation was carried out to shape the individual’s visage. Considering the human face is one of the most interactive parts of the body, not just a smile told of your place in society, but talking, laughing or even arresting open mouth, would indicate a person’s current identity or a change in social position within the Jomon community. Thus, dental ablation was an important part of Jomonese identity at the Yoshigo Shell Mound site.”

In the anthropology blogpost “Bones, Teeth and Climate Change in Japan“, whether tooth ablation was practised to indicate immigrant status was looked at. The relevant interesting passages are extracted from the post below:

“A new study by Kusaka et al (2012) seeks to address similar types of changes by looking at migration during a period of population increase in Japan due to improving weather conditions.

The study aims to test two hypotheses: first, that there was an increase in immigrants to Japan from the middle to late Jomon period (5000-4000 BP to 4000-2300 BP), and second that ritual tooth ablation is a feature that can be used to distinguish immigrants from locals. Analysis of climate in this region has revealed a warming period from 7000-4000 BP, followed by a cooling period from 4000 to 1500 BP. During the warming era there was an increase in large settlements based on archaeology and a focus on marine and faunal resources based on isotope analysis. However, in the cooling period these large settlements were disbanded, and an increase in caries prevalence shows a changing focus on plant resources. It is this period of increased immigration that they wish to examine through ritual tooth ablation patterns and strontium isotope analysis.

Ritual tooth ablation is removal of specific teeth for ceremonial purposes or rites of passage. Analyses of these activities in this period have determined there are a number of types of ablation as suggested by Harunari (1979): 1) individuals with two maxillary incisors removed, representing the coming of age tooth ablation; 2) individuals with additional four mandibular incisors removed, whose burial offerings suggest high prestige; 3) individuals who lacked all canines and who were immigrants married to type 2 individuals; 4) individuals with all canines and four mandibular incisors removed; 5)  individuals with all canines and two mandibular central incisors removed, which characterize people married more than once. Since migration into a group meant a specific type of tooth ablation it should be possible to use this as an indicator of increased immigration.

Strontium isotope analysis revealed that only one individual from the Ota site was an outlier and all individuals from the Tsukumo site were within the same distribution. This means of the entire sample only one individual was identified as a potential immigrant based on isotopic analysis. Based on these results, the authors argue that either people weren’t moving as much as previously thought or they were moving to areas with similar strontium isotope signatures. If populations from the coast remained in these areas or moved only along the coast it would be difficult to determine migration from their strontium ratios. Comparing types of ritual tooth ablation with strontium isotope levels shows that there is no clear correlation between the ritual and migration. The site contained a number of individuals with type 4I tooth ablation, which was proposed by Harunari (1979) to be a sign of an immigrant, however these had the same strontium ratios as the types of ablation thought to be associated with locals.

Based on their analysis, Kusaka et al (2012) argue that there isn’t a correlation between ritual tooth ablation and immigration, and that movement of people in this region during the Jomon period needs to be re-assessed. Previous studies have argued the migration increased throughout Japan, but Kusaka et al (2012) posit that it may be restricted to movement in specific regions and not in the region they studied.”

According to M. Takenaka et al., “Tooth removal during ritual tooth ablation in the Jomon period”  ritual tooth ablation was practised from the Jomon through the protohistoric Kofun periods, but was most actively practised between the Late to Final Jomon periods. The study also confirmed above findings that ritual ablation was performed on teeth for visible effects, as incisors, canines, premolars were chosen (all visible teeth).

The same dental study also determined that the practice of tooth ablation was rather painful as it used not extractive methods (e.g. by means of a cord or forceps to remove the tooth), but the traumatic method (by strong force in a single blow) to remove teeth which sometimes resulted in incomplete removal of teeth leaving residual broken roots in about 10.2% of cases examined (5 out of 49 samples). OUCH!

Finally, some light may be thrown on possible common origins or relationships with continental populations, through the HAN and T. NAKAHASHI study, “A comparative study of ritual tooth ablation in ancient China and Japan” which concluded:

 “In China, as far as it is known at present, ritual tooth ablation
first appeared among the people of the Shandong-North Jiangsu region, at least 6500 years ago, and then became very popular amongst the people of the Dawenkou culture of coastal China. In Japan, on the other hand, this custom was performed extensively among the people of the Late-Final Jomon period. This results in a time lag in their periods of prevalence of about 2000 years. There are also significant differences in the form of tooth ablation in ancient China and Japan. China is represented by the bilateral ablation of the upper lateral incisors (2I2 type), and with the exception of a small group, showed no remarkable temporal change after its inception. Ritual ablation in Japan was more complex and the number of teeth extracted during this custom’s most prevalent period was more numerous than that of China. On the other hand, there exist several points which
may suggest some relation between both countries, such as the basic similarities in the age at commencement of ablation, the prevalence of extraction of under incisors from the Late Jomon period in western Japan and the existence of the same tyle of ablation in the peoples of nearly the same period in China. Especially, as the abrupt increase of extraction of the upper lateral incisors in the people of the Yayoi period, such as Doigahama, who show morphological resemblances with the neolithic people of northern China, may suggest the influence of Chinese tradition.”

Locations of ritual tooth ablation in China and Japan

Locations of ritual tooth ablation in China and Japan Source: Han and  Nakahashi

At the same time another paper reported evidence from the Nukdo site in coastal South Korea which faces Japan, of signs of ritual tooth ablation and given its strategic location, should be studied for possible cross-straits relations between the peoples (source: Fujita and Choi’s report, “Dental Information about Human Skeletal Remains from Nukdo, South Korea from a Period Corresponding to the Yayoi Period in Japan” J. Oral Biosci. (50)4 215-221, 2008

Ritual tooth ablation found in Nukdo site in Korea (compared with other ritual ablation sites in Japan)

Ritual tooth ablation found in Nukdo site in Korea (compared with other ritual ablation sites in Japan) Source: Fujita and Choi, 2008

Source and further readings:

FUNAHASHI Kyoko (Kyūshū University) “Ritual tooth ablation and social organization from the Final Jomon to the Yayoi in Northern Kyushu, Japan” – This study investigates the meaning of tooth ablation and its socio-cultural background in the period between the Final Jomon and the Yayoi in Northern Kyushu by examining a) the percentage of those who received tooth ablation among individual age/sex groups, b) attrition, and c) the pre-auricular groove of the ilium.

A Biocultural Perspective on Jomon Dental Ablation: Visage, Identity, and Social Status by Amanda R. Harvey, G. Richard Scott, and Evan Pellegrin

Bones, teeth and climate change in Japan by Katy Meyers Emergy citing:

– Harunari, H., 1979. Postmarital modes of residence of the Final Jomon period. J. Facul. Low Litera. Okayama Univ. 4,; and

– Soichiro Kusaka, Takanori Nakano, Wataru Morita, & Masato Nakatsukasa (2012). Strontium isotope analysis to reveal migration in relation to climate change and ritual tooth ablation of Jomon skeletal remains from western Japan Journal of Anthropological Archaeology DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2012.05.004

M. Takenaka et al., “Tooth removal during ritual tooth ablation in the Jomon period

Funahashi, K and Tanaka, Y (2001) ‘A study of the social meanings of lower tooth ablation in Yayoi period’ in Basic Structure of Human Societies, Graduate School of Social and Cultural Studies of Kyushu university (ed), Study of the History of Exchange between the Kyushu island and the Korean Peninsula, Fukuoka: Midori insatsu

Funahashi, K (2003) ‘The age of tooth ablation and its ritual meanings in Jomon period’, Archaeological Research (50)1, 56-76

Funahashi Kyoko., 2000. Social meaning of a ritual tooth ablation in Doigahama group. Kobunkadanso, 25:pp43-71

Funahashi, K and Tanaka, Y (2001) ‘A study of the social meanings of lower tooth ablation in Yayoi period’ in Basic Structure of Human Societies, Graduate School of Social and Cultural Studies of Kyushu university (ed), Study of the History of Exchange between the Kyushu island and the Korean Peninsula, Fukuoka: Midori insatsu

HAN KANGXIN and Takahiro NAKAHASHI, “A comparative study of ritual tooth ablation in ancient China and Japan” Anthropol. Sci. 104(1), 43-64, 1996

M. Takenaka et al., “Tooth removal during ritual tooth ablation in the Jomon period

Himiko and Japan’s Elusive Chiefdom of Yamatai” by Jonathan Edward Kidder:  Tooth ablation was a dying practice during the Kofun period.

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