Volume 13 1904 > Volume 13, No. 2, June 1904 > On the survivals of ancient customs in Oceania, by Joshua Rutland, p 99-103
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- 99

DURING the Sultan of Johore's recent visit to Australia, a description of His Majesty's golden teeth, set with brilliants, went the round of our newspapers. For the truth of this description I am unable to vouch, but it was probably, in the main, correct, the wearing of golden teeth or of golden tooth covers being of very ancient Oriental custom.

Marco Polo, the celebrated Venetian traveller, who returned to Europe in 1295, after 25 years' absence in China and other parts of the far East, has left the following description of the province of Kardandan, the modern Yun-nan:—

“Proceeding five days' journey in a westerly direction from Karazan, you enter the province of Kardandan, belonging to the Dominion of the Grand Khan, and of which the principal city is named Vochang.

The currency of this country is gold by weight, and also the porcelain shells. An ounce of gold is exchanged for five ounces of silver, and a saggio of gold for five saggi of silver, there being no silver mines in this country, but much gold, and consequently the merchants who import silver obtain a large profit.

Both the men and the women of this province have the custom of covering their teeth with thin plates of gold, which are fitted with great nicety to the shape of the teeth, and remain on them continually. The men also form dark stripes or bands round their arms and legs by puncturing them in the following manner: They have five needles joined together, which they press into the flesh until the blood is drawn, and they then rub the punctures with a black colouring matter, which leaves an indelible mark. To bear these dark stripes is considered as an ornamental and honourable distinction.

- 100

When the natives have transactions of business with each other, which require them to execute any obligation for the amount of a debt or credit, their chief takes a square piece of wood and divides it in two. Notches are then cut on it, denoting the sum in question, and each party receives one of the corresponding pieces, as is practised in respect to our tallies. Upon the expiration of the term, and payment made by the debtor, the creditor delivers up his counterpart and both remain satisfied.”

Marsden, in his history of Sumatra, first published 1783, after commenting on the natives filing and staining teeth, says:—The great men sometimes set theirs in gold, by chasing, with a plate of that metal, the under row; and this ornament, contrasted with the black dye, has, by lamp or candle light, a very splendid effect. It is sometimes indented to the shape of the teeth, but more usually quite plain. They do not remove it either to eat or sleep.

From relics found in various parts of Europe, archæologists have concluded that during the stone period the inhabitants of the region tattooed, but it is evident, from the way that Marco Polo speaks of the tattooing, which he found in vogue amongst the most civilised peoples of Asia, that the custom had died out in Asia before the thirteenth century.

Speaking of the Kangigu province, probably Cachar, he tells us both men and women have their bodies punctured all over, in figures of beasts and birds, and there are among them practitioners, whose sole employment it is to trace out these ornaments with the point of a needle, upon the hands, the legs and the breasts. When a black colouring stuff has been rubbed over these punctures, it is impossible, either by water or otherwise to efface the marks. The man or woman who exhibits the greatest profusion of these figures is esteemed the most handsome.

Of the various kinds of mutilition practised by rude people to make themselves attractive, tattooing affords the greatest scope for artistic display. This probably accounts for its survival amongst people so far advanced in the art of dress as the Chinese and Japanese. That it was considered an emblem of rank, is shown by the following passage in the journal of Ralph Fitch, who visited Burma 1586: “The Bramas, which be of the king's country (for the king is a Brama) have their legs or bellies, or some part of their body, as they thinke good themselves, made black with certaine things which they have. They use to pricke the skinne, and to put on it a kinde of anile, or blacking, which doth continue alwayes. And this is counted an honour among them, but none may have it but the Bramas which are of the king's kindred. These people weare no beards. They pull - 101 out the haire on their faces with little pinsons made for the purpose. Some of them will let 16 or 20 haires grow together, some in one place of his face and some in another and pulleth out all the rest, for he carieth his pinsons alwayes with him to pull the haires out as soone as they appeare. If they see a man with a beard they wonder at him. They have their teeth blacked, both men and women, for they say a dogge hath his teeth white, therefore they will blacke theirs,”

Sir Joseph Banks has left the following interesting account of the New Zealand Maori, at the time of Cook's first visit:—“Both sexes stain themselves in the same manner with the colour of black, and somewhat in the same way as the South Sea Islanders, introducing it under the skin by a sharp instrument furnished with many teeth. The men carry this custom to much greater length; the women are generally content with having their lips blacked, but sometimes have little patches of black on different parts of the body. The man, to the contrary, seems to add to the quantity every year of his life, so that some of the elders were almost covered with it. Their faces are the most remarkable. On them, by some art unknown to me, they dig furrows a line deep at least, and as broad, the edges of which are often again indented and absolutely black. This may be done to make them look frightful in war; indeed, it has the effect of making them most enormously ugly, the old ones especially, whose faces are entirely covered with it. The young, again, often have a small patch on one cheek or over one eye, and those under a certain age (maybe twenty-five or twenty-six) have no more than their lips black. Yet, ugly as this certainly looks, it is impossible to avoid admiring the extreme elegance and justness of the figures traced, which on the face are always different spirals, and upon the body generally different figures, resembling somewhat the foliages of old chasing upon gold and silver. All these are finished with a masterly taste and execution, for of a hundred which at first sight would be judged to be exactly the same, no two, on close examination, prove alike, nor do I remember ever to have seen any two alike. Their wild imagination scorns to copy, as appears in almost all their works. In different parts of the coast they varied very much in the quantity and parts of the body on which this amoca, as they call it, was placed, but they generally agreed in having the spirals upon the face. I have generally observed that the more populous a country, the greater was the quantity of amoca used. Possibly in populous countries the emulation of bearing pain with fortitude may be carried to greater lengths than where there are fewer people, and consequently fewer examples to encourage. The buttocks, which in the islands were the principal seat of this ornament, in general here escape untouched; in one place only we saw the contrary.”

- 102

Tattooing is still practised by many Oriental people, but nowhere do we find it carried to the length described by Marco Polo, excepting in Polynesia, and even there the custom is fast disappearing owing to European influences.

Westermarch, in his “History of Human Marriage,” shows how dress evolves from ornament, the rudest type of ornaments being mutilations such as tattooing, cicatrising, circumcision, &c., and that the object of these mutilations was to provoke sexual desires,

Some years ago I showed a Croiselles Maori Ling Roth's edition of “Crozet's Voyage to Tasmania and New Zealand,” in which there is a good illustration of a Maori profusely tattooed on the thighs and lower part of the back. After carefully examining this picture my friend remarked, “I wouldn't like to have my face tattooed; but I would give a pound—yes, I would give two or three pounds—to be tattooed like that fellow.” Perceiving he was really in earnest, I enquired the reason why, and was told, “The women do like to see a chap tattooed that way.” He then went on to tell me that natives of the North Island tattooed like the illustration, occasionally visited the Croiselles, and excited the admiration of the women.

We can thus see that amongst the natives of the Pacific tattooing still produces the effect for which it was intended.

The pieces of wood used by the people of Yun-nan in Marco Polo's time for registering bargains are still in vogue amongst the natives of New Guinea. Rev. James Chalmers, in a very graphic account of a trading voyage along the coast, says:—“One of the lakatois has begun disposing of cargo. All the pottery belonging to a man is arranged on the beach, and into each two small pieces of wood are put, and when finished the owner returns along the row, takes one piece out, and the purchaser follows, taking the other. Both parties tie the tokens carefully up and put them away in a safe place, then the purchaser's family and friends come and carry away the pottery. When the time arrives for the lakatoi to return, the purchaser and all his friends set to work to get the sago required—one bundle of sago for each piece of wood. When the sago is finished he sends for the Motuan, who enters the sago-house with his parcel, counts the tokens, and then counts the sago, and if all is right he then carries them on board; if one or more bundles are short, there is a lively disturbance.”

This primitive way of trading reminds us of the ancient commerce thus described by Herodutus:—“The Carthaginians further say that, beyond the pillars of Hercules, there is a region of Libya and men who inhabit it. When they arrive among these people and have unloaded their merchandise, they set it in order on the shore, go on board their ships and make a great smoke; that the inhabitants, seeing - 103 the smoke, came down to the sea and then deposit gold in exchange for the merchandise, and withdraw to some distance from the merchandise; that the Carthaginians then, going ashore, examine the gold, and if the quantity seems sufficient for the merchandise they take it up and sail away; but if it is not sufficient they go on board their ships again and wait. The natives then approach and deposit more gold, until they have satisfied them. Neither party ever wrongs the other, for they do not touch the gold before it is made adequate to the value of the merchandise, nor do the natives touch the merchandise before the other party has taken the gold.”