Monday, April 1, 2019

The Ritual Removal of Teeth

Alice C. Linsley

In 1966, a Danish dentist found that the Acholi people living near the Sudanese border were dislodging their infants’ canine teeth. Traditionally, Nilotic cattle herders extracted 2-8 maxillary/mandibular incisors and/or canines. This was done to both boys and girls between the ages of 7 and 10.

This painful procedure - called naak - is part of a rite of passage that occurs during the dry season. The primitive practice involves extracting the canines from the jaw with a piece of iron, and the lower incisors are removed with a fishhook.

Naak is widespread in the more rural areas of Sudan, Uganda and Kenya, but the practice varies from group to group. The Nuer of South Sudan remove the teeth shortly after birth. Likewise, in rural Uganda and Kenya the teeth are often extracted soon after birth. Among the Nilotic Luo initiation involves the removal of six front teeth using the tip of a spear. The practice persists in some Luo clans, especially in Africanized Churches in Luoland, such as the Legio Maria sect.

This Sudanese man's teeth were extracted at age 10.
The reason for the extraction was never explained to him.

People interviewed who underwent the ritual remember being frightened and recall the pain of having the teeth or tooth buds removed. They were given different reasons for why it was done. Some thought removing the teeth would prevent diarrhea. Some believe this is done to enable a person to be fed in the event of lockjaw (tetanus).

Because it was undesirable to cry during the procedure, in which they used fishing knives to remove the teeth, girls went first. Tribesmen told the boys that if the girls didn't cry, then the boys couldn't cry either, said Santino Deng, a Sudanese refugee.

"You were happy if you endured the pain," Ajak said. "People would consider you were a man."

The Sudanese government has been dissuading people from removing teeth for health reasons, but some tribal groups still engage in the practice.

The practice of naak is very ancient, so much so that practitioners today do not know why it is done.  Frazer believed that this practice derived from recognition of the durability of the tooth in the skull after death, and thus the practice served as a statement about the afterlife.

Natufian Territory

The early Australians apparently practiced tooth removal. The Lake Nitchie male (buried c.6800 years ago) was buried with red ochre and was missed two front teeth. The antiquity of ritual tooth removal is verified by the discovery that naak was practiced by the Natufian populations (12,000 to 7,500 BC).

It appears that tooth extraction was a rite of passage similar to circumcision and that both were performed at ritual sites such as Tell Gezer in Israel (shown above), a site marked by a circle of standing stones. The word "kar" refers to a high sanctuary where sacrifices were offered. Karnak on the Nile and Carnak in Brittany are examples. A Luo informant believes that Kar-naak means "place of ritual." Among the Nilotic Luo, kar specifies a place with boundaries such as mud ramparts or stone fortifications.

In Dravidian, car means "sheltered together" and kari refers to a river. In Manding, kara means "to assemble."  In Sumerian, é-kur refers to a mountain house, a pyramid, or an elevated temple. In Akkadian, a ruined high place was called karmu. There is a connection between karmu (ruin) and the Magyar/Hungarian word hamu (ashes).

Since the kar were places of burnt offering where ashes were used to purify (lustration), the term kar is often associated with charcoal and soot. The Turkish kara means "black." In Magyar/Hungarian, the word korom refers to soot, as does the Korean word kurim.

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