Finding traces of the earliest humans who modified their skins is tough. The reason being that human flesh, unlike bones and teeth, erodes when buried. Still, pieces of evidence of body modifications have been discovered in parts of the African Continent. An example is the traces of plain-ink tattoos found on mummified corpses of women dating back to about 2000 BCE in Egypt (Winters, 2021). Further south of the Continent, a shred of similar evidence – dating about 12,000 years – of a man with modifications to his lips and cheeks were found and thus revealing one of the earliest pieces of evidence of facial piercings on the Continent (Osborne, 2020).
The practice of body modifications is as perhaps as old as humankind itself. The word tattoo comes from the name for the ancient practice of body modification that prevailed in Polynesia, known as tatu or tatau (Oxford University Press, 2008). While tattoos, piercings, and other lesser-known forms of body modifications, such as scarring, are now practised in modern settings for aesthetics, this has not always been the rationale for them.
Besides the general confusion that once prevailed about the differences between tattooing and scarring (Keefer, 2013), there was a misconception that body modification among indigenous societies was merely a matter of aesthetics and beautification. In his seminal work titled Social Skin, anthropologist Terrence Turner posited that the skin, “as the common frontier of society, the social self, and the psycho-biological individual,” is the “symbolic stage upon which the drama of socialization is enacted” and thus all forms of body modifications are the languages through which this drama [aka, socialization] is expressed (Turner, 1980).
Through Turner’s work, it became clearer that body modification practices held deep cultural and spiritual significance across most societies where they prevailed. It is worth stressing that body modification practices as carried out across various African cultures, and indeed other aboriginal cultures across the world did not necessarily reflect a preoccupation with beauty.
Scarring, rather than tattoos, was a more common form of body modification in Africa, particularly in the sub-Saharan region. Anthropologists have rationalized that this was the case because the pigments in tattoos were not as visible on darker skin as they were on lighter skin. Additionally, the formation of keloids on the surface of darker skin after being cut made scarring the preferred method of body modification, even though other forms, such as tattoos, were still being practised in sub-Saharan Africa (Garve et al., 2017).
Across Africa, cultures often have similar practices, yet the beliefs that give these practices meaning tend to differ from each other. Tattoos in southern Mozambique, for instance, were used to define clan and ethnic identity. They later became an act of resistance against colonialists and missionaries (Vaughan, 2007). In northern Nigeria, and specifically among the Ga’anda people of modern-day Adamawa State, women were often the most scarred members of the community. Scars were a rite of passage into womanhood which often began when a girl was about five years old and continued through puberty, eventually culminating when the young woman wedded. The Ga’anda also used scars to communicate with and preserve the spirits of dead relatives (Lathrop, 2018).
Among the Tiv in modern-day Benue State, the practice of scarring is explained using the “non-adaptive sexually selected character” theory. This theory explains that scars were “intended to stimulate and attract potential sexual partners” (Garve et al., 2017). So far, there seems to be a dearth of resources that provide an alternative explanation to the extensive scarring practices observed in Benue. It is worth considering that Tiv scars might have served other mythic and spiritual purposes because the objects inscribed on the skin were often animals (scorpions, birds, chameleons etc.) revered for specific characteristics (Bohannan, 1956).
An Endangered Language
Like languages spoken and written across the Continent, the practice of scarring, and other forms of modification were a means of communication that required symbols to be etched to the surface of the skin. Of course, only the members of an ethnic group could understand the symbolism behind the marks they placed on their bodies. As Schildkrout puts it, “to understand it [body art], one needs to know the vocabulary, including the shared symbols, myths, and social values that are written on the body.”
Among the Ga’anda, it was easy to tell, without necessarily being told, the phase of development girls had reached based on the extent of their scars. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Luba women were revered as spirit mediums and those among them who had had children were considered strong enough to be possessed. For this reason, many Luba women received scars so that they could be identified as mediums or potential mediums waiting to be possessed (Pitt Rivers Museum Body Arts, 2011). Scars were thus symbols that communicated to spirits that a woman was willing and ready to be possessed. Similarly, the Luluwa people of the DRC used scars to communicate their desire to be bound to this world. For the Luluwa, scars beautified the body and beautifying the body was a person’s signal to their soul that they were willing to remain bound to earth and their physical body (Lathrop, 2018).
While scarring practices were important aspects of culture in various parts of the Continent, they have gradually declined. This can largely be attributed to Western influence across African societies. The pressure to modernize, which is connected to colonization and missionary expeditions across the Continent, has largely influenced the decline in body modification practices (Vaughan, 2007). Early European observers and those who took part in the transatlantic slave trade were also responsible for modifying the meanings of the scars and their perception as primitive (Vaughan, 2007).
Subsequently, the emergence of governments that tended to replicate those in imperialist states further urged the decline in scarring practices and body modifications. In Nigeria, for instance, the Child’s Rights Act (2003), which prohibits the permanent marking and tattooing of children, is the justification for the refusal to scar children (United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 2013). Furthermore, arguments that body modification practices were unsafe and often resulted in infectious diseases, such as hepatitis and HIV, were also made and used to discourage the practice (Garve et al., 2017).
A Glimpse of Hope
Although scarification is no longer as widely practised as it was, it persists among some groups on the Continent. In Nigeria, for instance, scarring and other body modification practices are still prevalent among communities in rural and remote areas of the country where it is hard to enforce government laws (United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 2013). Similarly, across the border from Nigeria, in the Benin Republic, to be precise, the practice of scarification persists among a small group in Ouidah who are keen on preserving their cultural heritage (BBC, 2014).
Further east of the Continent, between Sudan and Ethiopia, parts of Tanzania, and Uganda, there are groups of peoples (Surma, Bodi, Afar, Nuer, Karrayyu, Menit, Datoga, etc.) who continue to practice scarification extensively. The scars and process of scarification of some of these groups have been recently documented by the French photographer Eric Lafforgue, whose work can be found here.
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Bohannan, P. (1956). Beauty and Scarification Amongst the Tiv. Man, 56, 117–121. 10.2307/2794969
Garve, R., Garve, M., Türp, J. C., Fobil, J. N., & Meyer, C. G. (2017). Scarification in sub-Saharan Africa: social skin, remedy and medical import. Trop Med Int Health, 22(6), 708–715. 10.1111/tmi.12878
Keefer, K. H. B. (2013). Scarification and identity in the liberated Africans department register, 1814–1815. Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne Des Études Africaines, 47(3), 537–553. 10.1080/00083968.2013.832337
Lafforgue, E. (n.d.). Scary Scars. Eric Lafforgue. Retrieved August 28, 2021, from http://www.ericlafforgue.com/storage/files/pages/Scarifications.pdf
Lathrop, C. (2018, November). Scarification, Femininity, and the Decline of the Mark of Civilizations. https://africanreligions.files.wordpress.com/2021/08/c0a69-scarification2cfemininity2candthedeclineofthemarkofcivilizations.pdf
Osborne, H. (2020, January 29). Earliest Evidence Of Facial Piercing In Africa Discovered In 12,000-year-old Skeleton. Newsweek ; Newsweek. https://www.newsweek.com/earliest-facial-piercing-africa-ancient-skeleton-1484600
Oxford University Press. (2008, March 19). Traditional Polynesian Tattooing | OUPblog. OUPblog. https://blog.oup.com/2008/03/polynesian_tattoo/
Pitt Rivers Museum Body Arts. (2011). Scarification In The Congo Region. http://web.prm.ox.ac.uk/bodyarts/index.php/permanent-body-arts/scarification/178-scarification-in-the-congo-region.html
Turner, T. S. (1980). The Social Skin. In R. Lewin (Ed.), Not Work Alone: A Cross-cultural View of Activities Superfluous to Survival (pp. 112–140). Temple Smith. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.14318/hau2.2.026
United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). (2013, December 30). Refworld | Nigeria: The Practice Of Tribal Markings On Male Children, Including Groups That Engage In The Practice; Whether The Parents Of A Child Can Refuse To Have The Practice Carried Out, Including Consequences Of Such A Refusal; State Protection Available (2012-2013). Refworld. https://www.refworld.org/docid/546dc28a4.html
Vaughan, M. (2007). Scarification in Africa. Cultural and Social History, 4(3), 385–400. 10.2752/147800407×219269
Winters, J. (2021, February 8). A Brief History Of African Body Markings. Amplify Africa. https://www.amplifyafrica.org/post/a-brief-history-of-african-body-markings