Fine, polished abrasion of teeth provides evidence for use of traditional oral hygiene practices in 32 fragmentary dentitions from a cemetery for newly arrived enslaved Africans who died before leaving Valongo, the slave port and market of Rio de Janeiro. We infer that chewing sticks were used before these people were enslaved. Cosmetic dental modification and abrasion of tooth roots occur in some individuals. High caries frequency, tooth loss and hypercementosis characteristic remains of enslaved Africans with longer residence in the New World were not found in this unique collection. We review evidence that the practice of using chewing sticks persists in some regions of the Americas. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.