The Ethnobotany of Teeth Blackening in Southeast Asia

Thomas Josef Zumbroich


This study presents a comparative perspective on the ethnobotanical resources utilized in teeth blackening, which was formerly an important life cycle event across Southeast Asia. Based on records from the seventeenth century to the present, we identified over 60 plant species hat were used for this practice in three distinct categories: as masticants, burn products and compound dyes. Different ethnolinguistic groups typically chose not more than a few locally available plant species as teeth blackeners. The mastication of the vine Epipremnum pinnatum (L.) Engl. or the fruit and root of Paederia foetida L. as well as the application of dry distilled oil of coconut shells were among the methods most widely applied by speakers belonging to different linguistic families. The occasional involvement of non-native plant species, such as Nicotiana tabacum L. or Psidium guajava L., demonstrates how the practice adapted over time. Betel chewing, though frequently confused with teeth blackening, was a distinct custom, but both intersected in their geographic scopes, use patterns and cultural ascriptions. Assessment of the medicinal qualities of some of the teeth blackeners suggests that the practice might also have had an ethnopharmacological dimension.

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Ethnobotany Research and Applications (ISSN 1547-3465) is published online by the Department of Ethnobotany, Institute of Botany, Ilia State University.
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