A skull (a) and photogrammetry of a skull (b) showing how the individuals had their upper incisors removed.
A skull (a) and photogrammetry of a skull (b) showing how the individuals had their upper incisors removed. (Image credit: C. Gerin and P. Mora /Antiquity Publications Ltd.)

Men and women living in West Central Africa 500 years ago dramatically changed their looks by removing their front teeth, ancient skulls reveal. Archaeologists found the centuries-old altered skulls deep underground in a cave, in which reaching it can be by rope, through a hole in the cavern’s roof. 

The harrowing vertical drop of 82 feet (25 meters) led to thousands of bones from at least 24 adults (men and women

age 15 or older) and four children that were deposited there on at least two occasions, researchers reported in a new

study. Hundreds of metal artifacts — jewelry, weapons and hoes, made of local iron and imported copper — lay near

the remains, hinting at the wealth and status of the people who were down there.

Richard Oslisly, an archaeologist with The French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris, discovered the

Iroungou cave in Gabon’s Ngounié province in 1992. Oslisly first investigated the cave in 2018, and accessing the

subterranean space was so difficult that archaeologists have explored its depths on only four expeditions since then,

according to the study. 

Sample of Bones

“There are very few sites with archeological human remains for this region,” lead study author and CNRS researcher

Sébastien Villotte told Live Science in an email. “Burying children, teenagers, adult males and females

here, with so many artifacts — more than 500! — was astonishing.”

Scientists photographed and laser-scanned the cave interior and burial sites so that they could reconstruct the cave

and its contents in 3D. They collected samples from leg bones for radiocarbon dating — determining an object’s age

by comparing ratios of radioactive carbon isotopes — but left all of the human remains where they were found. 

The cave contained four levels, and all of them held bones dating to the 14th and 15th centuries. Though the bones

were jumbled together, scientists noted that all of the skeletons were complete, “suggesting that cadavers, rather than

dry bones, were either thrown from above or lowered into the cave,” the study authors wrote.

Near the skeletons, there were also plenty of burial objects, such as bracelets and rings; axes and knives; more than 100

marine shells; and dozens of pierced carnivore teeth.

Deliberate removal

Of the human remains, the skulls were of particular interest to the researchers, as all of the intact upper jaws were

missing specific teeth: the central and lateral permanent incisors — four teeth in the very front of the mouth. All of the

empty tooth sockets showed signs of healing after the extractions — known as alveolar resorption — indicating that

the removal of the teeth was done while their owners were still alive and the holes had enough time to heal before the people died.

In 2016, another team of archaeologists found similarly altered skulls, also missing their front teeth, in Brazil’s Lapa do

Santo cave. But in the case of the Brazilian remains, which date to about 9,000 years ago, the extraction of the teeth

was after death in burial rituals, Live Science previously reported.

Dental modification is a custom that’s well documented worldwide, “especially in Africa,” Villotte said in the email.

“Many various reasons are advocated for tooth removal by the people who practiced it,” he added. Sometimes, those

reasons include facial modification — extracting teeth in order to change the shape or appearance of the face. The

Iroungou skulls clearly weren’t modified as part of a burial rite, given that the gums had healed, Villotte said. Because

the extractions in the Gabon cave were symmetrical and involved the same teeth in all of the skeletons’ jaws, they were

likely removed “in the context of some cultural practice” for this population, the scientists said in the study.

By Cynthia Nwankwo

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