To Strengthen the Teeth and Harden the Gums - Teeth blackening as medical practice in Asia, Micronesia and Melanesia
Keywords:teeth blackening, geophagy, bodily inscriptions, oral health
Teeth blackening with agents of plant and mineral origin used to be the most wide-spread form of bodily inscription in parts of Asia, Micronesia and Melanesia, and I argue here that it can be productively studied as a medical practice. Ethnographic evidence supports that teeth blackeners became integrated into indigenous systems of medicine in which they fulfilled different purposes. They aided the recovery from the physically challenging teeth filing procedure, provided a primary form of preventive oral care and treated acute oral afflictions. Frequently used teeth blackening agents were derived from plants (e.g., Paederia foetida L. or Punica granatum L.) which were traditionally considered of high medical value and, from a biomedical perspective, had a high content of bioactive constituents. Biomedical data also validate the usefulness of many blackening plant extracts for improving oral health and suggest efficacy against other diseases prevalent in tropical climates, e.g., diarrheal or intestinal parasitic diseases. An assessment of the risk-benefit balance of teeth blackening suggests that, despite concomitant carcinogenic and other toxic risks, especially from chronic application, the practice could have made a positive contribution to health status in many societies before Western contact. The unique dynamic of medical utility embedded in diverse symbolic ascriptions might have provided the basis for its adoption in so many cultures of Asia, Micronesia and Melanesia.
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