Late postclassic tooth filing at Chau Hiix and Tipu, Belize

Lorena M. Havill, Diane M. Warren, Keith P. Jacobi, Karen D. Gettelman, Della Collins Cook, K. Anne Pyburn

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

    7 Scopus citations


    An old and fascinating human practice, body ornamentation can be achieved through a variety of means including clothing, piercings, tattooing, and scarification, among others. Another such method, artificial dental modification, is found in many areas of the world but is perhaps best known in Mesoamerica. (For a comprehensive list of sources see Milner and Larsen 1991.) Modification is usually limited to the anterior, maxillary dentition (Fastlicht 1962). This supports the interpretation that Mesoamerican dental modification was ornamentation, these teeth being the most visible. Modification of other teeth is rare. However, when other teeth are modified, the next most visible areas, maxillary premolars or the anterior dentition of the mandible, are generally used (Fastlicht 1962; Linné 1940). Artificial dental modification can take several forms including inlaying or "filling," ablation, filing, or a combination of these. As with other body ornamentation, it is very possible that dental modification has significance be yond aesthetics; however, it is generally agreed that these techniques were not restorative, but instead purely decorative or perhaps ritually significant (Fastlicht 1962). Rubin de la Borbolla (1940) and Romero (1970) have each developed a system for classification of artificial dental modification (Figs. 7.1, 7.2). Rubín de la Borbolla's system involves 24 types of tooth modification designated as A through X. This system is based on varieties he found in collections at the Department of Physical Anthropology at the Museo Nacional de Antropología, México. Romero (1970) examined a collection of 1212 modified teeth from the Instituto Nacional de Antropologfa e Historia in México and grouped them into seven basic types (A through G). He further divided each of these types into several variants, recognizing a total of 59 types or variants. Neither Romero nor Rubín de la Borbolla observed ablation in Mesoamcrica. These systems of classification involve tooth filing and inlaying, both of which were practiced by the Maya (Fastlicht 1962). Linne (1940) hypothesized that the tradition began with filing, progressed to inlaying (or a combination of both) and then back to filing alone. According to Romero (1970), tooth filing among the Maya came into practice in the Preclassic (1400-600 B.C.). In the Early Classic (100 B.C.-A.D. 300), inlaying takes hold as the predominant practice. The Late Classic (A.D. 700-900) is a period of elaborate combinations of filing and inlaying. During the Postclassic (A.D. 1000-1500) filing is again predominant. Filing is the practice with which we are primarily concerned. Romero (1970) suggests that filing is not limited to males or to females, but it appears to be more common among one sex or the other in different time periods. For example, during the Early Postclassic, filing seems to be more common in females. He provides no quantitative data to illustrate these trends. Linné (1940) notes that more research is needed to determine any sex-specific nature of artificial dental modification. The relationship between dental filing and social status is also unclear. Joyce (1914) mentions that tooth filing was practiced among Aztec women of high status, but Romero (1958) finds no apparent association between tooth filing and social status. Saville (1913) notes that in Precolumbian Ecuador, the "principal" individuals in some villages wore gold inlays. The relationship between social status and tooth filing among the Maya in particular has not been discussed. Although many studies involve description and classification of artificially modified teeth, few examine the method by which artificial modification was achieved. Some methods of filing are suggested. For example, Fastlicht (1962) translates Landa's reference to filing teeth with stones and water. Stewart (1942), citing Conzemius's report of another method practiced by the Sumu of Central America that involves chipping the teeth with a dull knife, suggests that the "filed" teeth from Mesoamerica could not have been chipped, but must have been filed, and associates chipping with recently introduced African practices. Dembo and Imbelloni (1938) review experimental studies showing that the Mesoamerican filing patterns could have been produced with prismatic flint blades. Romero (1958) suggests that an assemblage of worked bone, pyrites, and jade found by Ricketson with Burial 15 at Baking Pot, Belize, may have been a tool kit for making dental inlays. Specific tool types for dental filing remain unknown and may have varied temporally and geographically. Gwinnett and Gorelick (1979) used scanning electron microscopy (SEM) to describe cavity preparation in a single skull with multiple inlays. They conclude that the inlays were done at different times and that a wooden, circular drill with sand abrasive was the likely instrument. Although dental inlays have received some attention, little research has been done on dental filing in Mesoamerica since the work of Romero (1970) and Fastlicht (1976), and SEM analysis of filed teeth does not seem to have been attempted. The Maya sites of Chau Hiix, a Late Postclassic residential center, and Tipu, a Colonial period site, have each yielded filed teeth. Scanning electron microscopy was used to evaluate the method by which they were filed.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Title of host publicationBones of the Maya
    Subtitle of host publicationStudies of Ancient Skeletons
    PublisherThe University of Alabama Press
    Number of pages16
    ISBN (Print)0817353763, 9780817353766
    StatePublished - Dec 1 2006

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Social Sciences(all)
    • Arts and Humanities(all)


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