"Ni vazana tsy aseho vahiny' - "Don't show your molars to strangers" - Expressions of Teeth blackening in Madagascar
Keywords:dental modifications, teeth blackening, teeth filing, betel chewing, oral literaturer
Although Madagascar is geographically disjunct from Southeast Asia, Micronesia and Melanesia, where intentional blackening of teeth used to be ubiquitous, this study found the practice deeply rooted in Malagasy culture. Men and women accomplished teeth blackening not only by chewing various, mostly endemic, plants, but also by applying organic burn products as well as a combination of mineral rich soil and barks containing tannins. The highly developed oral literature of Madagascar, in which teeth blackening features frequently, provides material to study the diverse associations which the practice and the requisite plants evoked. These connotations reached from the overtly sexual to affirmations of various core cultural values. For example, when teeth blackener was removed again from frontal teeth to render them white, while keeping molars blackened, this pattern not only held esthetic appeal, but also somatically expressed a desire for concealment versus revelation of the private self. The widespread distribution of teeth blackening across the island and similarities to methods known from Austronesian speakers elsewhere are some of the indications that teeth blackening might have reached Madagascar during its early phases of settlement by Austronesian speakers from the Indo-Malay archipelago. Surprisingly, betel chewing, a practice equally associated with Southeast Asian people, appears to have reached Madagascar at a relatively late date by way of the Swahili coast. Neither areca nut (Areca catechu L.) nor betel pepper (Piper betle L.) become naturalized across the island, nor did the usage of these plants penetrate Malagasy culture to any great extent.
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