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An Example of Intentional Late Prehistoric Dental Mutilation from Middle Tennessee

by William O. Autry, University of Chicago

Dental modifications, or intentional mutilations in our perception, are known from historic accounts depicting various indigenous groups of both the Old and New Worlds and reported as recently as the early years of this century. Observers have suggested that these filed and drilled teeth enhance beauty and, perhaps, indicate an individual’s status rank or social position. Dental mutilations have also been recorded for a number of late prehistoric burials from the vicinity of the Cahokia Mounds and Dickson Mound sites in Illinois. Such mutilations have been observed on fewer than thirty burials excavated throughout the Eastern United States during the last fifty years. Dental mutilation, consisting of surface grooves, occlusal notches, and even incrustations of obsidian and jadeite, occurs more frequently in prehistoric burials in Mexico. Mexican physical anthropologists have made extensive studies of mutilations and established a classification system for the great variety of observed mutilations.

Dental mutilations north of Mexico do not exhibit such a wide range of variation. Most of the United States examples consist of small occlusal notches and surface grooves. However, observers must exercise caution in order not to record dental hypoplasia, a situation where normal dental enamel development is decreased or arrested, sometimes causing a line to appear, as dental mutilation. A purported mutilation example reported in the 1940s from the Macon Plateau site in Georgia represents just such a misclassification.

The only recorded example of dental mutilation from Tennessee, and only the third confirmed and reported example in the United States outside Illinois, derives from a burial at the Early Mississippian Period (AD 900-1250) site of Mound Bottom (40CH8) on the Harpeth River in Cheatham County, Middle Tennessee. Burial 136CH10 was excavated in 1936 during Works Progress Administration sponsored archaeological excavations conducted by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Archaeologist Stuart Neitzel conducted these excavations under the overall direction of T. M. N. Lewis. Madeline Kneberg completed preliminary skeletal analyses in the laboratory. The burial is curated in the McClung Museum collections where I examined it in 1977.

Ancient burial site plan

Figure 1. Site Plan, Burial 136CH10

The burial is an adult male, over 40 years of age at death, with a stature about 173.5 cm (5′ 8.3″). He was interred in a stone-box grave within a lineage cemetery on the outskirts of the temple mound precinct at Mound Bottom. The grave was set apart from others in the cemetery, and it did not share walls with surrounding graves. It was well constructed and undisturbed except for slight plow displacement of some capstones. The only grave objects were four copper-covered, wooden milkweed-pod effigies (as characterized by archaeologist C. B. Moore). Two effigies were recovered adjacent to each side of the head, and the copper had stained the recovered cranial bones. These effigies were apparently decorative objects worn hanging from the individual’s earlobes. The burial represents a flesh interment of the highest status lineage resident at the site.

The dental mutilation consists of a transverse mesiodistal groove (0.5 mm width) in the crown enamel on the labial surface of the right maxillary medial incisor (A on Figure 2) and a single large notch on the incisal occlusal edge (B on Figure 2). This mutilation was presumably bilateral, but this cannot be confirmed, since the left incisor was missing from the curated bones. Mexican physical anthropologist Javier Romero has observed that this particular type of dental mutilation is restricted to areas north of Mexico. More specifically, the Mound Bottom example is similar to examples of dental mutilation recorded from the Cahokia Mounds Site near East St. Louis, Illinois, with transverse grooves and incisal edge notches, but the combined use of both grooves and notches is known only from one other example at the Krueger Site, Monroe County, Illinois. The Krueger Site example also occurred on a male.

Ancient dental mutilation

Figure 2. Front teeth, Burial 136CH10

So what does this dental mutilation mean or suggest to us about this individual? Interpretation is quite difficult since both males and females, buried with and without grave offerings, exhibit mutilations. To date, only adults have mutilations in the examples known from the United States. Yet, even with adults, it is possible that many examples have been missed because of dental decay, tooth erosion, poor preservation, and observer bias. The Mound Bottom example clearly suggests that higher status individuals exhibit such mutilations, but more examples are needed to support this tenuous interpretation. Additional analyses of McClung Museum skeletal collections might provide additional Tennessee examples for comparative analyses.