|Physical anthropologist, Dr. Gary Heathcote, of the University of Guam,
sent me the following message. "I'm working on a ~19 yr. old
female [ancient Chamoru skeleton]. Her teeth staining (light
orange-brown) is virtually restricted to labial/buccal surfaces.......
and doesn't reach the cheek teeth, except mandibularly (M1s and M2 on the
right side only, mesiolabially). Can you discern non-betel staining
w/ your ultra structural approach.....or is more experimental work needed?
E.g., re cosmetic staining -- do we know/have hunches about what they were
using?" (Heathcote, 1995, PC). In a nut shell Heathcote needed to
know if there was evidence that ancient Chamorus stained the front sides
of their front teeth in addition to the betel nut stains that would be
on all sides of all the chewer's teeth. I responded with the following
Traditionally, people in the Philippines, Palau, Yap, the Marianas (Lessa,
1975, 54- 84), and Japan (Kurashina, PC) blackened their teeth for cosmetic
purposes. Although many westerners find this practice revolting,
the people who practiced teeth-blacking did it for aesthetic reasons (Lessa,
1975, 95). In Japan the process was limited to the geisha girls.
This goes beyond just the inadvertent staining of the teeth caused
by chewing betel nut. Habitual betel nut chewing, with pepper leaf
and lime causes a dark-brown color. Although many of these people
chewed betel nut, this staining was a black as pitch (Lessa, 1975, 94).
A good description of betel nut chewing comes from the Drake expedition.
"Three ingredients go into making of an envelope of the concoction. First
is the betel nut itself, its appearance being like that of a large acorn.
It is the reddish seed of the areca palm (Areca catechu), and must be broken
down into fragments or slices. The plant whose leaves supply the
wrapper for the nut is the betel pepper (Piper betel) and is allied
to the kava used by Fijians and Polynesians. The leaves impart an
agreeable zest to the nut. The nut kernel is mixed with air-slaked
lime, carried characteristically in a bamboo container. When these
three ingredients are chewed they redden the saliva, which is produced
in superabundance and often oozes untidily from the mouth. The veteran
chewer shamelessly sprays his surroundings with his crimson expectorations.
The effect of habitual chewing is to discolor the teeth a dark brown.
Betel contains a harmless narcotic stimulant" (Drake 1628: 82-84
cited in Lessa, 1975, 84).
The stains that I was looking for came from more than just the betel
nut chewing described above.
The ancient Chamorus stained their teeth black. In the Marianas
Pigafetta observed in 1521 "'...Their teeth are red and black, for they
think that is most beautiful'" (Blair and Robertson 1903-1909:XXXIII, 97
cited in Lessa, 1975, 117-118). "Formerly the women used to dye their
teeth black with certain kinds of herbs, but this practice has fallen into
disuse" (Freycinet, 311 in French & 49 in unedited micron film
translation). It seems likely that they used the same process as
The Yapese used the cooked and pounded leaf of the kell tree mixed
with mud from a particular swamp (Russell, PC). Chamorus call the
kell tree, puteng. The scientific name is Barringtonia Asiatic.
The box like fruit float and look like little pyramids. Fisherman
in the past used the puteng seeds for fish poisoning.
The Spanish Mission Letters from the 1670s describe the staining
process as witnessed by a priest. Chamorus fed young women through
a funnel for two weeks while the stain took hold.
Below you will find Dutch Jesuit priest Father Pierre Coomans' (Father
Francis Hezel spells it Coomans and Coemans in his book) 1673 comments
on Chamoru physique, costumes, hair, teeth blackening, and dances.
The information is from Document 1673 L2 - History of the Mariana Island
Mission for the 1667-1673 period. The historical narrative of the
events in the Mariana Islands from 1667 to 1673. It is a translation
by Rodrique Lvesque of the Latin report. My comments are in brackets
preceded by my initials (ljc). This is reprinted with the permission
of Rodrique Lvesque.
"Most of them [ljc - Chamorus] are tall, and strong in body, in such
a way that they are very experienced among [other] Indians; it is generally
agreed that none others can be found to be equal to them in strength. And
they do not ignore the qualities of their own body, for, the main reason
why we wear clothes, and our people keep saying that, is that they are
not so skilled at making elegant clothes; what if they are not, that cannot
be the extreme reason for their lacking clothes. They do not use
any clothes, other than what our poor father Adam used to wear. But
that does not mean that modesty is completely gone; women hide their shame
either with the leaf from a tree, or some plate from a tortoise shell.
Nevertheless, the married women want to dye their hair, and all [women?]
want [ljc - end of page 74] to dye their teeth, and patiently spend a lot
of time doing so for the women seek to have them [their hair] look white,
not being satisfied with what nature provided them, with. Therefore,
what nature denied, they seek with some effort.
They anoint the whole head and their hair with a mixture of lime [ljc
- calcium hydroxide or afok in Chamoru] and oil, then expose themselves
to the burning rays of the sun at noon, for hours, rather, for days on
end. Whenever the head is burning hot, they sprinkle it with sea
water, if you look at it, you show your appreciation.
They spend no fewer efforts in bothering to dye their teeth black,
and I do not know why they think it makes them beautiful, or majestic.
In order to do this, they spend some sweat; they mix black coloring
[ljc- crushed Puteng (Chamoru), fish poison tree (English) - Barringtonia
asiatica (scientific name) leaves were used in Yap] with some gum [ljc
- In Yap mud from one particular swamp was used.] to make it long-lasting.
They often reserve an entire day to anoint that one tooth; nevertheless,
this care, and above all this time, taken for this unction [process] will
take up as many as 14 days, during which time the teeth must not touch
anything. That is why they suffer a continuous torment, with only
a funnel, to give sustenance to their body, so as not to die.
When the effect has been obtained, the neighbors and friends organize
a formal feast, as if as many Ethiopians as teeth had come into the world.
And in no other way do they show that a progressive step has been made,
as when they organized these frequent feast among themselves.
For instance, they cover themselves from the naval down to the knee
with a skirt, and they usually decorate themselves with some rather long
nerves from leaves, then prepare wreaths with small flowers that look like
hyacinths to place on their forehead, and they also add a precious-looking
collar made of discolored glass beads [ljc - keep in mind that Chamorus
had contact with Europeans for over 150 years in 1673], or if none are
at hand, some local stones in any case yellow, but this they very rarely
wear.3 [ljc-Lvesque's footnote states: This color could perhaps be
translated as 'yellowish,' or 'golden.'
The wife of a Carolinian chief, who had drifted to the Philippines
about a decade earlier, carried such a collar of beads,
described as made up of material unknown to Europeans, but resembling
amber. They are no doubt related to similar beads still preserved
in Palau, but by no means unique to those islands then. (ljc-Palauan
women, of high status, still wear these. The large beads looks like
yellow plastic but it is a natural substance not found in Palau.
Today they wear a single piece of this carefully shaped yellow stone
slightly smaller than a betel nut on a black string.) No one knows
were this material came from. (ljc- Dr. Kurashina thinks that this
material comes from China)]
On their chest, as well as on the back, they hang some tortoise shell,
with some small pieces of coconut shells artistically crafted.4 [ljc
- Lvesque's footnote states: The expression 'as well as' could also
be translated 'rather and.' I think that Fr. Coomans is describing
two pairs of half-coconut, or pieces of tortoise shells tied both on the
chest and on the back of a dancers. A similar coconut-shell dance
is still performed in the Philippines today. In any case, the shells
on one's back
are used by one's partner in a dance, to make rhythmic noise.]
Through the left arm they slip in a piece of wood in the shape of a half-moon,
and from the fingers of the right arm hang [ljc- end of page 75] some castanets,1
[[ljc - Lvesque's footnote states: I imagine that some small stick
was tied to each right-hand finger, and the fingers tapped upon the wooden
half-moon on the left arm. (ljc - other accounts say the castanets
were lots of shells tied to a stick that was rhythmically shaken.)] and
they begin to dance and sing, accompanying the numerous voices with gestures
in unison. And the men do not abstain from the feasts either.
They especially delight in their games and sport matches; they come
from all districts with as many javelins as possible to participate in
the latter, and they lay them out to sell among themselves.
Then they begin the games, throwing the javelins at one another [ljc
- in other accounts it is said that there was competition in throwing accuracy,
in agility in dodging spears, and that men actually caught the spears thrown
at them], from a distance, and from close by; they are very skilled at
avoiding them with elegance. Nevertheless, the game is often not
2 [[ljc-Lvesque's footnote states: What I have translated as
"javelins" is "hastas" [i.e. shafts] in Latin. It is clear that such
spears had no tips, but they could still produce nasty puncture wounds,
when they found their mark.] They oil their bodies before the game"
(Lvesque, Vol. 6:1995, 74-76).
Father Coomans died in the Mariana Islands after 1685 (Hezel, 1989,
Teeth blackening for cosmetic purposes is well documented in the Mariana
Islands, Yap, Palau and the Philippines. Humans will go to great
lengths make themselves more attractive. For some it is teeth whitening
and for others it is teeth blackening.
Having personally suffered betel nut stained teeth, perhaps teeth blackening
would be an improvement. Nevertheless, I cannot imagine being fed with
a funnel for two weeks while the stain set.
Courtesy of Dr. Lawrence J. Cunningham
Research Associate/ Outreach Coordinator
National Resource Center for Micronesian Studies
Richard Flores Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center
University of Guam
Mangilao, Guam 96923
send emails to "Lawrence J. Cunningham" firstname.lastname@example.org