The Pygmie people live near the equator in the African rain forest. Teeth filing or sharpening is a painful custom of these Pygmies of the Congo Basin. The practice began over 500 years ago in order to make the indigenous people less attractive to the slave traders, as they thought. The sharpened teeth were also an aid in eating meat. Some of their descendants continue the practice today as teeth sharpening has become an integral part of the Pygmy culture. The procedure takes about 45 minutes and is performed on all six upper front teeth. The people use a knife or hammer to chisel away the tooth until they achieve the desired shape. The procedure is very painful. At the same time, lacking sugar, these indigenous people did not have any tooth decay in the seventeenth century.
Sadly, in 1904 the American explorer Samuel Verner brought back several Pygmies to exhibit at the St. Louse World’s Fair. One of the Pygmies, Ota Benga, was later exhibited at the Bronx Zoo. The New York Times reported on the exhibit with the headline “Bushman Shares Cage with Bronx Park Apes.” Today the official website of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation describes this human exhibit as “misguided.” Certainly a better apology is needed for this horrific chapter of our history.