The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

Dental ablation in Sudan: the construction and performance of social identity


School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University

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Dental ablation is a personal and communal experience that plays a role in the expression of social identity through the alteration of physical appearance. This practice has a long history in Sudan, though its social significance changes through time. Dental ablation is portrayed as a male rite of passage in Neolithic Sudan and in ethnographic and clinical literature; however, this pattern is not found in Meroitic (c. 350 BC-AD 350) to Christian (c. AD 550-1400) period samples. For this study, 409 Meroitic individuals were examined from the Second Cataract Semna South site. Thirty (7.3%) individuals, 17 of 164 (10.3%) males and 13 of 168 (7.7%) females, show dental ablation. Of these, 18 of 30 (60%) show ablation of one to four mandibular incisors and 14 of 30 (40%) show a pattern involving both mandibular and maxillary incisors. A previous study of 96 late Meroitic through Christian period individuals from the Fourth Cataract Ginefab School site revealed similar frequencies of affected males and females, though these exclusively involved ablation of one to three mandibular incisors. Chi-Squared Tests of Independence confirmed that there is no statistically significant sex bias in regard to instance or pattern of ablation in either sample.

This study demonstrates that shifts in socio-political climates may alter the meaning of cultural practices, while not altering the practice itself. The social significance of skeletal markers of body modification should be investigated as temporally fluid, elucidating the evolution and function of cultural practices in the construction of social identity.

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