Archive | July, 2013

Why Do Aka Foragers Point Their Teeth?

28 Jul

My doctoral dissertation in anthropology (Fancher 2009) was based on Aka and Bofi foragers of the Central African Republic, so I incorporate a lot of “pygmy*” materials into my cultural anthropology and archaeology classes. The wonderful documentary A Caterpillar Moon has been part of every cultural class I’ve ever taught. One of the more intense scenes in this film shows a young Aka male getting his teeth pointed – this is done with a knife and without anesthetic! It looks extraordinarily painful and, not surprisingly, students always ask “Why do they point their teeth?”



The Aka youths in A Caterpillar Moon explain that they get their teeth pointed to attract a mate; both males and females suggest that no one will marry someone who leaves their teeth as they are. This was always the best explanation I could offer: Because in Aka culture pointed incisors are considered attractive. In other words, conformity to arbitrary cultural standards of beauty. That’s really all it takes for something to become normalized across generations. And, once they become established, it takes a very brave trendsetter to decide to not do the “normal thing.” In this case, who wants to risk their long-term happiness to avoid the short-term pain of tooth pointing?

Of course, when students asked the obvious follow-up question, “Why are pointed incisors considered attractive among the Aka?,” I was stumped, usually offering a lame “because they are…” After all, how many fashion trends in the U.S. make sense? Now, thanks to Bonnie Hewlett’s ethnographic research, I have a more complete answer. Hewlett interviewed an Aka woman named Nali who explained:

“If you do not get your teeth pointed, people will laugh at you and think you look like a chimpanzee, so you get your teeth pointed to distinguish yourself. It is good to do this. If you are a man or a woman searching for a wife or husband and you see someone who does not have pointed teeth, you say, ‘You there, you are like a chimpanzee. You have big teeth like a chimpanzee! I do not want you.’” (Hewlett 2013:106. Listen, Here Is a Story: Ethnographic Life Narratives from Aka and Ngandu Women of the Congo Basin. Oxford).

Many human cultures engage in beautification processes to distinguish themselves from other animals (How many examples can you think of in your own culture? Please comment below). Nali’s explanation provides a cultural rationale for why pointed teeth are considered attractive in Aka society. If unmodified incisors were associated with chimpanzees in my culture, I’d probably opt to get them pointed too!

Other forest forager groups practice tooth pointing, or have in the past. Haviland et al. tell the tragic story of Ota Benga, an Mbuti pygmy housed in the Bronx Zoo in 1906. Unfortunately, Ota’s sharpened teeth were not seen as a sign of his humanity (as among the Aka), but “as evidence of his supposedly cannibal nature” (2013:97. Cultural Anthropology: The Human Challenge. Also see Bradford and Blume 1992. Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo). It’s astonishing that the same cultural practice can be so differently interpreted depending on one’s perspective. It also highlights a simple truth of anthropology: When in doubt about why people in a foreign culture do something “strange,” ask them.


*Forest forager is the preferred term (see Hewlett and Fancher 2013).

Optimal Foraging at the Supermarket

19 Jul


Author Michael Pollan offers some brief words of advice for those of us who do our foraging at the grocery store:

Theoretical Nonsense

15 Jul

Evolution by natural selection is a scientific theory about the origins and development of life. And since it is “just a theory,” scientists (including anthropologists) should teach alternative “theories” like Intelligent Design to be fair, right? Wrong! This disingenuous appeal to fairness is an old trick that plays on different uses of the word theory:

“A scientific theory is not a hypothesis or a guess, as the word commonly means when used in casual conversation. A scientific theory is the one explanation that is confirmed by all the known and validated experiments performed to date. Experiments involving evolution have numbered in the hundreds of thousands over the past 150 years. A theory is thus among the most certain forms of scientific knowledge, and evolution is among the most certain of theories” (Shawn Lawrence Otto 2011:167. Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America).

That’s a wonderfully accurate distinction between a scientific theory and a “just a theory.” Laura Helmuth at provided another statement about the far-reaching power of evolution as a scientific theory today:

“Evolution is a theory the way gravity is a theory [unless you prefer the “theory of intelligent falling”]. It’s not a story or an aesthetic choice or one side of a debate; it’s the way the world works. Everything we know about geology, paleontology, isotope chemistry, genetics, taxonomy, experimental biology, biomedicine, biochemistry, paleoanthropology [emphasis mine], and yes, in some cases even psychology … all of it enriches our understanding of evolution. Whatever levels of analysis you care to use, from molecular to planetary, they all mutually reinforce the discovery that all living things evolve through a process of natural selection. Absolutely nothing in the 154 years since Origin was published has undermined the theory.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself – though I have tried 🙂 Evolution is integral to anthropology, and all of science. To pretend that it is “just a theory” is misleading nonsense.

Dig Wars – Reality TV Show Loots Historical Sites

11 Jul

A great post from American Anthropological Association President Leith Mullings.