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Are human teeth ivory?

Human teeth contain ivory, but they are not considered true ivory. Ivory comes from the tusks and teeth of animals like elephants, walruses, hippopotamuses, and wild boar. While human teeth are made of the same material – dentin – as ivory, they are much smaller and not as desirable for carving or decorative purposes.

What is ivory?

Ivory is a hard, white material that makes up the tusks and teeth of certain mammals. It consists mainly of dentin, which is the substance that lies under the enamel of teeth. Dentin contains collagen fibers that give ivory its strength and flexibility. True ivory comes only from the tusks and teeth of elephants, hippopotamuses, walruses, warthogs, and other animals with large tusks or tusk-like teeth.

Ivory has been a prized material for centuries due to its beauty, durability, and ability to be carved into detailed sculptures and decorations. Traditionally, the main source of ivory was the tusks of African and Asian elephants. Unfortunately, the demand for elephant ivory led to widespread hunting and endangerment of elephants in the wild. Most commercial trade in elephant ivory is now illegal worldwide.

Are human teeth made of ivory?

Human teeth consist of the same basic materials as ivory – dentin covered with enamel. However, there are some important differences:

  • Size – Human teeth are very small compared to elephant tusks and do not provide enough material for carving.
  • Shape – Human teeth are not straight and elongated like tusks.
  • Quality – The dentin in human teeth has a different microstructure than elephant ivory, making it less desirable for carving.
  • Legality – It is illegal in most countries to buy, sell, or possess human teeth or skeletal remains.

For these reasons, human teeth are not considered true ivory from a commercial, artistic, or legal perspective.

Chemical composition of human teeth vs. elephant ivory

The main component of both human teeth and elephant ivory is dentin. Here is a comparison of the chemical makeup:

Component Human teeth Elephant ivory
Dentin 70% 90%
Water 10% 4-6%
Collagen fibers 20% 4-5%
Hydroxyapatite 65-75% 65-70%
Inorganic material 95% 70%

While the primary component of both is dentin, elephant ivory contains higher amounts of pure dentin and less water, making it superior for carving and decorative purposes.

Physical properties of human teeth vs. elephant ivory

In addition to chemical makeup, the physical properties of human teeth differ from elephant ivory:

Property Human teeth Elephant ivory
Hardness Softer Very hard
Tensile strength Low High
Durability Low High
Texture Rough Smooth
Luster Low High gloss

The hardness, durability, and lustrous finish of elephant ivory make it much better for carving detailed artwork and jewelry. Human teeth are not suitable for these purposes.

Uses of elephant ivory vs. human teeth

Due to their differences, elephant ivory and human teeth had distinct uses historically:

Elephant ivory uses

  • Carved art objects – Figurines, netsukes, sculpture
  • Jewelry – Piano keys, bracelets, necklaces
  • Utilitarian items – Cutlery handles, billiard balls, tool handles
  • Musical instruments – Keyboards, bagpipes, guitar frets

Human teeth uses

  • Dentures and implants
  • Education and research
  • Occasional decorative uses, but not for fine art due to poor carving quality

In summary, while human teeth contain ivory, they lack the size, quality, and physical properties that made elephant ivory a prized material. The uses of the two materials were distinct historically and human teeth were never a substitute for elephant ivory.

Legal status of ivory from elephant vs. human sources

The trade and possession of ivory is heavily regulated worldwide. The legal status differs significantly between elephant ivory and human teeth:

  • Elephant ivory – International trade banned in 1990. Domestic trade banned in U.S. and many other countries.
  • Human teeth/skeletons – Bought and sold legally only among accredited medical, educational, and scientific institutions. Private trade is illegal.

Purchasing, selling or possessing human teeth or skeletal material outside of sanctioned institutions is strictly prohibited, while all commercial uses of elephant ivory are now illegal even domestically. There are only a few narrow exceptions allowing sale of pre-ban antique worked elephant ivory pieces with proper documentation.


While human teeth are made of ivory-like dentin, they do not constitute true ivory. Only the tusks and teeth of certain animals like elephants and walruses provide ivory suitable for carving and decoration due to their size, density, hardness and structure. Human teeth have very limited uses, primarily in medicine and education. Their trade and possession outside of sanctioned institutions is illegal worldwide. Elephant ivory was once a highly prized material but international trade bans now prohibit its commercial uses.