Intentional Tooth Removal in Neolithic Italian Women

By Robb, John | Antiquity, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Intentional Tooth Removal in Neolithic Italian Women


Robb, John, Antiquity


Cultural modification of the teeth is a widespread, often florid phenomenon, with the highly visible front teeth most commonly furnishing the canvas for dental self-expression. Native peoples of Mesoamerica and South America inlaid the incisors, sometimes with jade; various African and African-American groups filed points and geometric designs on the same teeth; the Etruscans made showy gold bridges, primarily for young aristocratic females (Becker 1995; Corruccini & Pacciani 1989), and modern Euro-Americans engage in elaborate cosmetic orthodontistry. The front teeth can also be modified or lost through craft activities, traumatic injury, and dental therapy (Scott & Turner 1988; see Milner & Larsen 1991 for a comprehensive review of cultural dental modifications). In prehistoric Europe, Jackson (1915) reports possible cases of tooth removal from the British Neolithic.

This paper describes a distinctive pattern of dental modification(1) in Neolithic Italian women. The Italian Neolithic (c. 6500-3200 bc; Skeates 1994), while not a homogeneous period, displays continuity in many aspects of culture. Social life was based upon small villages of 25-200 people, supported by unintensified agricultural economies. In spite of a rich record of art (Graziosi 1974) and burial practices (Robb 1994a), little is known about gender-related behaviour and ritual practices.

Patterns of tooth loss

Samples and methods

Neolithic Italian burials usually occur singly or in small groups, but as sufficient skeletal data accumulate, cultural patterns can be discerned statistically. This analysis is based on data from 30 adult females and 22 adult males from 27 sites in central and southern Italy; a pooled sample is both necessary for most Italian skeletal analysis prior to the Iron Age, and consistent with the social reality of the Italian Neolithic. None of the sites studied would have been demographically or culturally self-sufficient, and traditions would have been maintained and reproduced by groups living at many villages.(2)

Data were collected directly on 36 skulls, and data on 16 specimens taken from published sources (TABLE 1; for information on site location and sources, see Robb 1994a; 1994b). About half of the sample are moderately well-preserved skulls; the rest include only the upper or lower jaw, often quite fragmentary. Most were associated with postcrania. The specimens were [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED] [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 2 OMITTED] sexed morphologically, using both cranial and postcranial indicators as available; juveniles and unsexed adult skeletons were excluded.

The basic method followed was to make a standard dental census of each specimen (Buikstra & Ubelaker 1994; Lukacs 1989) (TABLE 1). When a tooth is lost during life, the alveolus does not remain an empty socket but resorbs to become solid bone [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]; teeth present at death (including ones still in place and ones lost archaeologically after death) can be distinguished accurately from teeth lost during life. While assigning teeth to these categories is usually unproblematic, it can occasionally be difficult when using published data, due both to variation in observational standards and to incomplete publication. Consequently, published specimens were included in this analysis only when the status of each tooth socket in the surviving dentition was explicitly noted or when published photographs show their status. (3,4)

Results and statistical analysis

Eight women of 30 in the Neolithic Italian sample lost incisors and/or canines during life ([ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]; TABLE 2). Statistically, for females, a total of 6.0% of all anterior teeth were lost before death; none of the 22 males lost incisors or canines at all [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. The teeth most commonly affected were the central and lateral incisors, although no one tooth was the norm. …

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