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  • By Raquel Bagnol

Ancestors' intriguing close-up smiles

Ancient cosmetic dentistry in the Mariana Islands involved complex processes

Dental modification was a trend in several parts of the world during the 16th century, and the early inhabitants of the Mariana Islands practiced it as well during the pre-contact period. This practice was documented by anthropologists based on skeletal samples excavated from different sites on Guam, Saipan, Tinian and Rota.

In an article titled "Cultural Alternation of Human Teeth in the Mariana Islands" published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Ron Ikehara-Quebral and Michelle Toomay Douglas said there were indications that teeth modifications were either a form of art or cultural cosmetics that signified a particular identity, lineage, or social status.

Samples were analyzed from dental remains recovered from burial sites on those four islands.

There are different methods of dental modification.

Abrading or filing. This is done by a back-and-forth movement using a rounded or blunted tool, resulting in a concave or extensively grooved surface of the teeth.

Incising. This is where the labial tooth surface of the maxillary right central incisor of the teeth has been cut with a sharp implement to form patterns that are either vertical, diagonal or cross-hatched.

Three patterns of dental incising were noted in the skeletal remains from Guam, consisting of a single set of vertical lines. The second pattern was a single set of oblique or diagonal lines, and the third and most common was a latticed or cross-hatched pattern.

The anthropologists theorized that precontact people on Guam might have used chert to incise teeth. Chert is a material much harder than volcanic glass. A chert source and quarry hs been documented during the pre-contact times.

The number of incised lines was believed to hold some significance.

Filing. This method was used to “cut” the tooth surface and was similar to "cutting" bone in a back-and-forth motion using a sharp tool.

Filing appeared to have been practiced as early as AD 880, possibly predating AD 490, and might have continued throughout the 16th century.

The abrading of filing of the labial enamel tooth surface might be incidental to the process of cleaning the teeth.

Like the precontact Micronesians and Polynesians in Kiribati, the ancient people of Mariana Islands used ash, sand, burnt stick, pumice or the internal shell of cuttlefish or squid to clean their teeth.

Deliberate teeth alterations were found in 11 of 233 skeletal remains from five different burial sites on Guam — Academy Gym, Nomna Bay, Gognga-Gun Beach, Matapang Beach Park and from islandwide samples.

Three of eight skeletal remains unearthed from three burial sites on Rota showed dental modifications. On Saipan, 18 skeletal samples from 108 sets of remains unearthed from the burial grounds — the Duty-Free site in Garapan, Hafa Dai Beach Hotel Afetna and San Antonio — showed dental alterations.

The scarce samples of skeletal remains from Tinian showed no signs of dental alterations.


All of the dental alterations from Guam, Saipan and Rota included abrading and incising. Most of the dental samples from the different burial sites with incising had red-orange to dark brown stains, presumably from chewing betelnut.

Documents showed that teeth stained from betelnut had hardness values three to five times lower in stained areas than in unaffected enamel, making it easier for stained teeth to incise than unstained teeth.

Because the database for dental samples was not large enough, the authors said it was difficult to conclude that the teeth alterations in the Mariana Islands were part of rites of passage or had any symbolic and ritual significance.

Raquel Bagnol is a freelance journalist. She previously worked for Palau Horizon and Marianas Variety. Send feedback to

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