Thursday, January 19, 2006

Tooth marks link Vikings, Indians

"A scientist who found deep grooves chiselled into the teeth of dozens of 1,000-year-old Viking skeletons unearthed in Sweden believes the strange custom might have been learned from aboriginal tribes during ancient Norse voyages to North America -- a finding that would represent an unprecedented case of transatlantic, cross-cultural exchange during the age of Leif Ericsson.

The marks are believed to be decorations meant to enhance a man's appearance, or badges of honour for a group of great warriors or successful tradesmen. They are the first historical examples of ceremonial dental modification ever found in Europe, and although similar customs were practised in Asia and Africa over the centuries, the Swedish anthropologist who studied the Viking teeth is exploring the possibility that trips to Newfoundland and other parts of the New World a millennium ago introduced the Norsemen to tooth-carving styles being carried out at that time in the Americas.

'The cases from the North American continent are from the time period,' Caroline Arcini, a researcher with the National Heritage Board in Lund, Sweden, told CanWest News Service. 'So it is within the same timespace as the Swedish ones that are dated from 800-1050 A.D.'

In a paper published by the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Ms. Arcini details the horizontal etchings across the front teeth of about 25 young men whose remains were found at several Viking Age burial sites in Sweden and Denmark. The 'furrows' -- some teeth have several parallel grooves -- 'are so well made that it is most likely they were filed by a person of great skill,' Ms. Arcini writes.

But 'the reason for, and importance of, the furrows are obscure. The affected individuals may have belonged to a certain occupational group, or the furrows could have been pure decoration.'

Examples of tooth modification have been found at archeological sites around the world -- with the exception, until now, of Europe.

The study notes a similarity in style between the Scandinavian specimens and dental markings common about 1,000 years ago in parts of North America, including Mexico and the present-day United States as far north as Illinois."