Determining African Birth from Skeletal Remains: A Note on Tooth Mutilation

1994 (Jerome S. Handler) Determining African Birth from Skeletal Remains: A Note on Tooth Mutilation.” Historical Archaeology 28: 113-19.

Tooth mutilation existed in sub-Saharan Africa, and was found among slaves transported to the New World. A small number of mutilation cases have been identified in early New World “Negro” skeletons from the Caribbean and Florida. The skeletal evidence alone precludes determining if the individuals were African- or American-born, but limited ethnohistorical data suggested the former. This hypothesis is considerably strengthened by evidence from 18th-century runaway slave advertisements found in the newspapers of five mainland British colonies. Analysis of these ads shows that every runaway who is identified with tooth mutilation came from Africa. This ethnohistorical evidence supports other sets of bioarchaeological and ethnohistorical data that the African custom of tooth mutilation was not generally practiced by Caribbean or North American slaves. Where filed or chipped teeth appear on skeletons “racially” identified as African in New World sites, there is an excellent chance that the individuals were African-born.

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