Incisor ablation among the late upper paleolithic people of Tam Hang (Northern Laos): Social identity, mortuary practice, and oral health

John C. Willman, Laura Shackelford, Fabrice Demeter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objectives: A detailed assessment of intentional incisor ablation among the Late Upper Paleolithic people of Tam Hang (northern Laos) was undertaken to understand how this cultural practice, in addition to age and sex, influenced an individual's inclusion in the mortuary context. The covariation of ablation status with occlusal variation and anterior dental pathology was addressed to study the implications of this cultural practice on oral health. Materials and Methods: Sex, age, caries, antemortem tooth loss, and occlusal variation were assessed through standard osteological methods for 12 individuals. An observational protocol to identify intentional ablation was developed specifically for this sample. Results: Four ablation states were identified that range from no ablation to the removal of two, three, or four lateral (I2) incisors. The timing of ablation was attributed to ritual extractions during early adolescence. Adult age-at-death was the strongest indicator of inclusion in the main burial context and a child burial was isolated from those of adults. Ablation status does not strongly influence inclusion in the mortuary context. Individuals lacking ablation tended to have a higher incidence of anterior caries, pathological tooth loss, incisor crowding, and canine rotation. Conclusions: This study identifies the oldest case of intentional incisor ablation in Late Pleistocene Mainland Southeast Asia. We conclude that ablation does not always “compromise” the dentition; instead, it may have unintentional oral health benefits in some contexts. Am J Phys Anthropol 160:519–528, 2016.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)519-528
Number of pages10
JournalAmerican journal of physical anthropology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 1 2016


  • Southeast Asia
  • dental modification
  • early modern humans
  • occlusal variation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Anthropology


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