One of the distinctive characteristics of Cahokia and its area of strong influence is the prevalence of filed teeth in many human burials. Filing of teeth as a cultural practice was common in Mexico for thousands of years before the Spanish conquest, but further north it is very rare and found mostly at Cahokia and sites in the immediately surrounding area. Gregory Perino published an article in 1967 summarizing the data as of that date on filed teeth at Cahokian sites. He notes that most of the burials with this characteristic were excavated non-professionally and that many of the early excavations were not reported in sufficient detail to know whether tooth-filing was present in the burials they uncovered. Nevertheless, Perino’s article is a useful summary of the evidence at the time.
Interestingly, Perino notes that while most of the reports of filed teeth in North America are from the Cahokia area, there are some scattered early mentions in other regions, including Georgia and the Southwest (!). The Southwestern mention is interesting, as Christy Turner has claimed that some of the remains at Chaco Canyon show filed teeth. None of the other physical anthropologists who have analyzed the relevant remains have noted the same, but that’s not very many people and in general the published physical analyses of the Chaco burials are woefully inadequate. Perino’s reference to a Southwestern example of filed teeth is unclear, but he appears to be citing a previous study of the practice in Illinois which I have not been able to track down.
Setting the comparative question aside, Perino finds three types of tooth filing at Cahokia:
- V-shaped notches in the cutting edge of the upper medial and (more rarely) lateral incisors. The number of notches varies from 1 to 4 in the medial incisors and 1 to 2 in the lateral incisors. One example has a single notch in each of the lower medial incisors; this is the only example of filing of any of the lower teeth.
- Shallow horizontal grooves along the upper medial incisors above the cutting edge. There can be either one or two grooves, and the grooves can be either parallel to the cutting edge or slightly oblique.
- A combination of both of the above types on the same teeth.
Of these, the first category is the most common. The number of notches varies, and they are found more often in the teeth of younger than older individuals, although Perino notes that this is probably because the relevant parts of the teeth have worn away in older individuals. The second and third category are less common, though still somewhat widespread.
Perino finds examples of tooth filing both at the Cahokia site itself, particularly in the area of Mounds 19 and 20 east of Monks Mound, and at various locations showing Cahokian influence both to the north in the lower Illinois River valley and to the south in the southern American Bottom. All of the sites he discusses are in the modern state of Illinois. Tooth filing is generally found in only a few individuals in any given burial population, indicating that while it was fairly widespread around Cahokia it was far from universal and generally limited to a small number of people within the society, possibly an elite class. Most of the examples are from men, but there are a few women as well. The chronology of Cahokia was not very well developed at the time, but it appears that the examples of filed teeth mostly date to the height of Cahokia’s power and influence, now dated to approximately AD 1050 to 1200.
Near the end of the paper Perino proposes some suggestions for other areas where similar practices might be identified through further research:
It would not be unreasonable to expect filed teeth to occur in the Tennessee-Cumberland area, in southeast Missouri, and in earlier parts of the Caddoan area, especially at Spiro. Relationships in these areas are noted through trade objects and a similarity in their religious practices.
These are certainly among the areas showing extensive contact with the American Bottom during the Mississippian period, but they are not the only such areas. What additionally distinguishes them is that they all lie south of Cahokia, and it seems likely that what Perino has in mind here (although he doesn’t say so explicitly) is that these areas may have served as conduits for the transmittal of tooth-filing from Mexico to Cahokia. Be that as it may, as far as I know this practice has not in fact been identified in any of these other areas, which would cast doubt on the idea that it diffused from Mexico to Cahokia, unless Cahokian elites actually went directly there themselves and brought back this (and other?) ideas.
The question of the extent of Mesoamerican influence on Mississippian culture has been hotly debated over the years; the current trend seems to be to downplay the possibility of direct connections and focus on in situ explanations of the Mississippian Emergence. I’m not sure what to think about this, myself. There are a lot of things about Mississippian societies that certainly look very Mesoamerican, at least at first glance, but it’s not clear how many of these are specifically Mesoamerican developments rather than things that typically happen at a certain level of sociopolitical complexity cross-culturally and that are therefore likely to have emerged in the Mississippian context from underlying trends the same way they did in Mexico much earlier. Tooth-filing seems a lot more specific than that sort of thing, though, and I can see it as a strong piece of evidence for direct influence, but the lack of it in the intervening area (if that does in fact turn out to be the case) would be problematic for that interpretation. It seems like a weird thing to do, but it’s not totally unique to Mexico in a global context, so it’s certainly possible that the Cahokians came up with it on their own as well.
Perino, G. (1967). Additional Discoveries of Filed Teeth in the Cahokia Area American Antiquity, 32 (4) DOI: 10.2307/2694083