Tattoos of our Ancestors: African Tribal Tattoos, Piercings, and other extreme body Modification

For many thousands of years, tattoos were seen as a way of curing disease, protecting against spirits, showing affiliation towards certain groups/tribes, and reflecting personality traits such as bravery, courage, and social status. These tattoos were predictably very simple in design. They consisted of pairs of straight lines on the arms and legs of the priestess and also included an elliptical pattern beneath the navel (belly button) area.

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A lady with tribal face tattoos

It seems that the ancient Egyptians had more to do with the spread of tattoos throughout Southern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and beyond. Early on in Egypt’s history, during the time of the Egyptian priestess Amunet, only women who engaged in ritualistic practices were tattooed; the practice was performed on them strictly for spiritual reasons.

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Like facial makeup and perfume Egyptians also have a great history of tattoos as well.

However, during the 3rd and 4th Egyptian dynasties when the pyramids were being erected, tattoos became prevalent among all Egyptian men and women. As Egyptians traded with countries like Greece, Persia and Arabia, others admired their tattoos and were inspired to adopt the art form themselves. One Egyptologist believes these tattoos could have symbolized and represented rejuvenation and fertility in women.

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This 2,500 year-old female mummy dubbed the “Altai Princess” is one of few known mummies with visible tattoos. On her shoulder: an animal-style deer tattoo.

Although it appears that tattooing culture as we know it never gained any noticeable historical attention in the Sub-Sahara, it was found that small groups of indigenous people from these regions did practice a form of body modification called skin scarification.

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Ms. K. Djeneba from the Ko tribe in Burkina Faso

The process of scarification involved using a sharp instrument to cut the skin deeply enough for a scar to form over the area. Sections of skin were sliced into shapes and patterns so that when the skin healed and scarred, the shape/pattern would remain forever. This was considered a dangerous practice many years ago due to the lack of suitable healing methods in these times. If any new tattoo or scarification practice was undergone, then the lack of available tattoo aftercare advice and procedures meant that many people suffered greatly from infections contracted through the puncture wounds within the skin – even quite commonly causing death if not treated quickly enough.

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Scarification Tattooing in Benin

Given the superstitious nature of many indigenous people from this area, many of these practices were drawn and provided in order to create a protective barrier against various forms of evil and harm that may be presented to a person throughout their life.

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Scarification: an ‘Ancient’ African Tattoo Culture

Many of today’s body arts have their roots in African tribal body art. From scarification to body paints, body decoration has long been held in high regard in many African tribes. In many tribes, little clothing was worn as the body was seen as a canvas for decoration. Body decoration and transformation occurred at set times in a person’s life and the decoration was thought to enhance a person’s status and beauty.

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Piercing of the lip, ears or nose is a common form of African tribal body art. The piercing may be adorned with bone, ivory plugs, bronze or other metal jewelry as well as shells and fish vertebrae. The more rare a type of jewelry was, the more it was prized, being used for trade or even money in some cases. Wearing this jewelry in the body can be a sign of wealth or status.

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Nose Piercing, Papua New Guinea

The Ancient Egyptians are of the oldest bodies found with stretched ear lobes. They also loved to adorn themselves elaborately and even restricted certain types of body piercings to the royal family. An interesting fact is that only the pharaoh was allowed to have his navel pierced and anyone else who did so would be executed. Egyptians wore earrings to display their wealth and portray their beauty.

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In some parts of Africa women start to stretch their lips six months before marriage. The size of the lip plate indicates the number of cattle the husband will have to pay for her dowry. The lip plate, also known as a lip plug or lip disc, is a form of body modification. Increasingly large discs (usually circular, and made from clay or wood) are inserted into a pierced hole in either the upper or lower lip, or both, thereby stretching it. The term labret denotes all kinds of pierced-lip ornaments, including plates and plugs. Archaeological evidence indicates that labrets have been independently invented no fewer than six times, in Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia (8700 BC), Mesoamerica (1500 BC), and coastal Ecuador (500 BC). Today, the custom is maintained by a few groups in Africa and Amazonia.

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Girl with a lip Plate.

The teeth sharpening ritual is most popular among the Makonde people in southeast Tanzania and northern Mozambique, the majority of ethnic groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo including the Bopoto and the Zappo Zap people. Some tribes in the Central African Republic, the Bemba of Zambia, and even the Yao of Malawi and parts of Zambia also practised the teeth sharpening ritual. Teeth sharpening was done for various reasons among these tribes. For some, the ritual was done to initiate young boys and girls who had reached puberty into adulthood. For these people, it was done during the adulthood rites of passage mainly because at that age they would be able to endure the pain to show that they were indeed ready for adulthood this was mainly among tribes in Congo and the Central African Republic and Gabon.

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DRC Pygmies

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