Intentional dental modification in Panamá: New support for a late introduction of African origin

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Intentional dental modification is a widespread practice in both ancient and modern populations. In Panama, the modern practice is restricted to the Ngäbe indigenous people inhabiting the western provinces. Several researchers have posited that Ngäbe dental modification evidences cultural transfer of African origin due to the absence of post-contact records of this practice in the region, and based on the chipping technique used to create a pointed tooth shape. In this paper, we collate bioarchaeological data from human remains recovered from pre-contact and early colonial period contexts in Panama to evaluate this hypothesis. The results of our study found no evidence for intentional dental modification among the pre-contact sample, but several instances of artificially modified incisor teeth among the early colonial sample. The latter pertained exclusively to individuals of African ancestry, and whose teeth had been chipped to points in the same manner as reported from Ngäbe communities. Isotope data revealed that one individual was a first-generation immigrant who likely originated from the African continent. Based on these results, as well as an exhaustive review of the ethnohistorical and modern ethnographic literature, the original hypothesis of a late introduction of African origin for the practice of dental shaping among the Ngäbe was upheld.
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Journal of Anthropological Archaeology Volume 60
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