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Embody Metamorphosis: Ancient Body Modifications

Perhaps it's true that it's all been done before, one way or another. Your tooth bling? Mayans did that thousands of years ago. Your huge stretched ear lobes? African tribes have done that for centuries. Cultural appropriation is definitely a thing, but so is the global sharing of customs and traditions...and some things, like these incredible body modifications, seem to stick. Illustrating or changing our bodies, making them our own, has always been a part of the human condition. That's something to celebrate, because while some conservatives like to think that tattoos and piercings are far from actually looks like that it's the most natural thing in the world to transform the body.

Ancient Tattoo Tools

In this article we revisit some of the most well-known body modifications from around the world. Sparked by the new discovery of an ancient tattoo tool kit that was radiocarbon dated to around 2,700 years old making it the oldest find in tattoo history, as well as a key to the birth of Polynesian tattooing. This revelation only further supports the idea that constant exploration and expression of the body, in a myriad of ways, has, and always will be, a sacred treasure of human kind.

Dental Modifications: Beyond Tooth Bling

If you've seen the movie Apocalypto you beheld a bevy of body modifications and, although it wasn't the most historically accurate film about the Mayan's, there were many accurate depictions of their personal beauty affectations. Perhaps the least well known is their tooth bling: precious stones embedded into their teeth, particularly jade.

The aren't the only culture to be obsessed with modifying their teeth, I mean...technically, I feel like we could call Hollywood's penchant for glow in the dark whitened caps a body mod....but, more interestingly, you may have heard of Ohaguro: tooth blackening. Although many cultures have dipped their teeth in black ink, soot or even drank mixtures containing oxidized iron, it is usually associated with the Japanese elite, including geisha. Set against a bright white face and red lips, teeth could look yellower than beauty standards found acceptable. The black mixture solved this problem, and apparently kept cavities at bay.

Bagoba tribeswoman with sharpened teeth #ancientbodymodifications #bodymodifications #bodymods #tribal

But tooth bling and blackened ivories aren't the only mouth body modifications. The Bagoba tribe, as well as others, have been known to sharpen their teeth. The process is, as one can imagine, rather painful...but it's seen as a rite of passage for the younger generations.

The Original Nose Plug

In the northeastern part of India is a tribe known for their particular body modifications. The Apatani tribeswomen are immediately recognizable by the large plugs that they put into their nose. Apparently the nose gauging, as well as facial tattooing, began as a way to stop neighboring tribes from kidnapping the Apatani's women. But it soon became a very distinguished and important ritual within the culture, part of the Danyi-Pillo, or Donyi-Polo, indigenous religion that embraces animism, as well as yin and yang, as inherent parts of our current reality and universe.

Giant Lip Plates

Lip plates are another gauging custom for many tribes in Africa over the last few centuries, including the Makonde, Sara, Lobi, and Mursi people of the Omo River valley in Ethiopia. The Sara women of Chad also wore lower plates, but also tended to wear plates in their upper lips as well until the custom fell out of favor in the 1920's. In fact it seems that many tribes have discontinued, but the Mursi people continue to decorate themselves in several creative ways. Not only do they wear lip plates, something that the women craft themselves and take great pride in doing so, but the people have also gained attention for their usage of native plants, animal bones, metal rings, and beads as incredible headdresses, jewelry and daily wear.

As with many of the body modifications discussed within this guide, the Mursi people use lip plates to signify a girls induction into womanhood. Usually the piercing is done by a family member in the lip. Gauging starts with a small peg, and then works up to large disks that can range anywhere from 3 to 16 inches. It's also worth noting that the two lower front teeth, and sometime four teeth, are removed to make way for the curve of the flattened clay or wooden plugs.

Scarification Rituals

Perhaps even more widely recognizable than lip plates is the act of tribal scarification. Many tribes across Africa, as well as other continents as well, have practiced this ritual for hundreds of's embedded into their religious and social beliefs. For most tribes the act of scarring the face is a rite of passage from boyhood to adulthood. It can also be used as protection or signifier for acts of war or heroism. They are regarded highly as symbols of beauty and strength, but they've also been used as a way to identify tribe members during times of warfare. Deeply ingrained in the community, culture, religion, and history of these tribes, the ritual persists despite many groups who hope to stop it due to child rights, Christianity, globalization, gentrification, and the like.

From the Nuer people who gives young boys lines on their forehead, called Gaar, to the Surma women who use thorns to decorate their skin with intricate raised scar designs, the practice of scarification has not only survived into the present day, but many tattooists in Europe and North America are trying their hand at Neo-tribal body modifications.

Head and Foot Binding

Head binding and foot binding have more than pain and technique in common. The custom is usually associated with those of high birth...a symbol of absolute elitism. Head binding was practiced in Ancient Egypt, and is still being practiced in other parts of Africa as well. Foot binding was a tradition that started in China around the turn of the 13th century. As you can imagine, foot binding made walking, usually, women were carried by an ornate litter, or sedan chair, carried by servants. Only the wealthy could afford to do this, but foot binding took the country by storm. In some places it is still practiced, the idea that small feet are erotic still carries weight.

While head binding usually simply incorporates pieces of cloth, and sometimes boards, being used to tightly shape the skull, foot binding is a bit different. The toes are broken, save the big toe, after being soaked in hot water and oiled. The smaller digits were then wrapped around the foot and the arch was pushed up. Cloth binds kept the foot in place and were only removed to allow blood and pus to escape. Apparently, it takes about two years to finish the process, and as Amanda Foreman discusses in her article about foot binding, this custom is just another instrument of keeping women "subjugated" through torturous beauty treatments.

Lovely Lip Tattoos

Another symbol of reaching adulthood are the lip tattoos of the Fulani women. Once they are ready for marriage, they will tattoo their lips, and sometimes gums, in a traditional called "Tchoodi". Not only a sign of their passing through puberty, but also an expression of their courage and strength. For the Fuli people of Mali, it's a body modification that only women can get and perform. The large finished circle around their lips highlights their teeth and bright smile, attracting men and letting them know they are ready for marriage.

The Ainu, a people of Japan's northern island Hokkaido, werealso engaged in a mouth tattooing ceremony for centuries. Via Lars Krutak, "Until very recently (the last fully tattooed Ainu woman died in 1998), Ainu women retained a tradition of facial tattooing...For the Ainu, tattooing was exclusive to females, as was the profession of tattooist. According to mythological accounts, tattoo was brought to earth by the “ancestral mother" of the Ainu Okikurumi Turesh Machi who was the younger sister of the creator god Okikurumi....The completed lip tattoos of women were significant in regards to Ainu perceptions of life experience. First, these tattoos were believed to repel evil spirits from entering the body (mouth) and causing sickness or misfortune. Secondly, the lip tattoos indicated that a woman had reached maturity and was ready for marriage. And finally, lip tattoos assured the woman life after death in the place of her deceased ancestors."

Pretty cool, right? As Japan became more modernized and the government sought to put tribal cultures under their control, tattooing of this kind was outlawed in accordance with Confucian laws. However, due to the integral importance of tattooing to the Ainu people, the custom carried on regardless of legality...just as Irezumi does today.

Outlawed Hand Tattoos

The Ainu aren't the only Japanese peoples that had their tattooing practice outlawed. The Ryukyuan people, or Uchinanchu, of Okinawa had a hand tattooing practice called Hajichi that was also specific to the women of the community. These indigo tattoos were likened in color to the technique of dying fabric called tebori. The tattoos themselves were not only a beautiful shade of blue, but also made up of abstract shapes and symbols.

Circles and squares commonly represented a reel of thread with sewing box. Women from elite families had more intricate designs butAlexis Miyake states in her article about Okinawan tattoos from 2015, "No matter their status, all Uchinanchu women were said to value their hajichi over their wealth, their husbands, and life itself, as the tattoos were thought to ward off evil, ensure safety, and bring happiness." When they were deemed illegal in the late 29th century, not only were their women at the hands of a patriarchal government, but their culture and religion was at stake. And while, for a time, these tattoos became a source of real pain for the Okinawan, younger generations have started accepting their ancestors practices as their own.

Antique photo of Ryukyuan people, or Uchinanchu, women doing hand tattoos #Ryukyuan #Japanese #handtattoo #hajichi #ancientbodymodifications #bodymodifications #bodymods #tribal

The Legacy of Whang Od

And, of course, nods to Whang Od. The Filipina tattoo artist from Buscalan, Tinglayan, Kalinga, Philippines, is the oldest mambabatok of the Butbut people of the larger Kalinga ethnic group. Although many tout that she is the last of her kind, she is currently training her niece to take over. Tourists come from all corners of the globe, however, to get one of her protective pieces that come in the form of small abstract shapes and lines. Another form of tribal tattooing, it is, again, a reminder of the sacred part that body modification has played in the expression of humankind.

Fighting to End FGM

And last, but certainly not least, is female genital mutilation, or "cutting". Via the New York Times article, “Every community has their own reason for why they cut their girls,” said Christine Nanjala, who leads the special prosecution unit. “You’re dealing with culture, and when you’re dealing with culture, you’re dealing with the identity of a community.” For most tribes, cutting is a way to show a girl's introduction into womanhood which means she is ready for marriage and children. Without this, many men won't take a girl as a wife, and she is marked forever by many a stigma. 
The tradition involves removing large areas of the labia, clitoris, and skin surrounding the sensitive area. Not only is it an extremely painful process, but many girls die from complications afterward or bleeding. The ritual is deeply ingrained in countless tribes, and overturning it has been hard, but absolutely essential, work.

If you're interested in learning more check out the film Moolaadé, trailer below, and help support groups that are dedicated to this cause like Plan International and End FGM.

Remember that your body is your own, and that you have a right to say what happens to it. Embrace the freedom of expression, and stand up for those who can't speak for themselves!

Justine Morrow
Written byJustine Morrow

Social Producer, Journalist, Editor, and Curator for Tattoodo I am here to support you 🌻 IG: @lathe.of.heaven

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