Archive for Modification Around the World

Eldorado and the Muisca Indians

Everybody’s heard of El Dorado (or the Romanized reconfiguration “Eldorado”), but most of us know it as a lost city of gold.  The truth about the legend of El Dorado, is that it actually started not with a metropolis, but with a man.

The real “El Dorado” was the lord of the Muisca peoples, a conglomeration of complex tribal societies that resided in the mountains and river valleys of what is now Colombia.  This ultimate ruler of the Muisca was known to hold ceremony on the lake Guatavita, where he would be covered in gold dust and adorned with gold jewelry.  Offerings of gold would be thrown into the lake as pots of sacred incense burned, and eventually, the chieftain would jump into the waters as well, cleansing himself of his golden outer shell.

 Muisca territory

One of the more impressive items that was commonly worn by our gold chief during this ceremony and others like it, was a large golden septum ring.  The Muisca used a technique to craft metal objects that is referred to simply as “lost-wax casting,” and involves the use of natural waxes and clay molds.  By employing this method and melding their gold into alloys, intricate items could be made from a single casting, and in one single piece.  This is how the decorative septum and ear jewelry of the Muisca and neighboring tribes was created.

In many of the alloys regularly used in such handicrafts, the content of real gold still remained quite high, generally composing around eighty percent, (about the same as modern day 18kt gold).  One of the more prevalent compositions they employed was very similar to what we would consider “rose gold,” having a mildly rosy hue due to the addition of local copper.

Upon observing the perceived wealth of the Muisca and their chieftan, many of the Spanish and German expeditions into the Amazon in the 1500s began to assume that a large mining city or gold treasury must be present in Muisca territory.  This fed in directly to the establishment of the El Dorado city legend.  Ironically, archeologists and anthropologists have established that the Muisca were likely to have gotten their gold through trade, rather than actually mining it within their own area.

 gold jewelry and statuaries

Since the late 1500s, multiple attempts have been made to drain the 49 foot deep lake Guatavita, in the interest of recovering the gold left over from known Muisca ceremonies.  The first and only to succeed was a company out of London, who, upon draining the lake to just a few feet deep, discovered that the silt and mud made such an operation a losing endeavor.  They recovered only a few hundred English pounds worth of golden artifacts, and ceased their activity.  In the 1960s, the Columbian government finally passed legislation designating Guatavita and it’s shores a protected historical site, and rendering any future attempts to excavate illegal.  A few gold Muisca artifacts, including septum rings, are currently on display at the Gold Museum in Bogotá.

body mod and faery folk

Everybody knows what fairies are, but in Irish folklore, an entire world exists that’s full of  diverse and unique magical creatures, also known as faery folk or fae.  These include the beautiful pixies we traditionally think of as fairies, along with gnomes, goblins, trolls, cobalts, faery lords, wood nymphs, sprites, elves, wee folk (leprechauns), and other preternatural beings.

A great deal of lore surrounding the fae is taken from older Gaelic and Middle English traditions, sometimes citing various species of faery folk as actual pre-Celtic tribes who were forced into hiding by advancing human societies.  The belief that these creatures were pushed into the deep reaches of the forest is reinforced by the concept of a separate realm developing around them, this space often called simply “faerie.”

 whimsical faery themed belly rings

One of the more interesting things about the creatures of Irish folklore in particular however, lies in their popular depictions both old and new.  Many times the beautiful fairies or pixies, along with natural spirits like nymphs, are seen as having elaborate Celtic style tattoos or body markings.  Commonly these will include vines, trees, and knots.  The idea of decorative jewelry including intricate headdresses and large, stately earrings is prevalent as well, as are certain small changes in body shaping, the best known of these being the pointed ear, and curled or extended toes.

With the resurgence of Celtic and Northern European culture, so too the variety of faery costume accessories has risen, with many enthusiastic new artisans now beginning to offer ornate handcrafted items.  Faery necklaces, headpieces, and stunning ear jewelry are just a few of the offerings now enhancing fairytale cos-play.  Though there may not be much truth behind the faery folk legends, their popularization has given us a fashionable reason to play some adult dress-up, even if it is only for Saint Patrick’s Day.

faery worthy ear adornments

western, eastern, and tribal piercings

It’s no secret that the number one most popular piercing in the world is that of the ear lobe.  In both western and tribal societies, the ears are regularly pierced during childhood, and in some cases, even during infancy.  Reputed to be one of the fastest and most easily healed piercings available, it’s plane to see that the lobes will continue to hold top spot, likely for decades or even centuries to come.

Second to standard piercings of the ear lobes are piercings of other areas of the human ear.  There are over fifteen distinct piercings of the ear cartilage to date, and more are being thought up all the time.  Amongst the most popular of these are the helix piercing, tragus piercing, rook piercing, and industrial.  In many of these piercings, specific jewelry is required to achieve the desired look, and the availability of custom bending and fitting services in parlors is consequentially at an all time high.

 possible piercings of the human ear

Rounding out the rest of the top five we have the nose piercing, belly piercing, and lip piercing respectively.  Nose piercings have been practiced in India and the Middle East for thousands of years, and are still an important part of traditional Ayurvedic health care.  They’re also mentioned in the Christian bible, more than once.  Today piercings of the nostril are performed in many western countries as well, primarily as a fashion statement, and piercings of the nasal septum are also growing in popularity.

 traditional nostril piercing

Although navel piercing claims roots in tribal dance, it’s certainly the most quickly rising of the popular piercings, as prior to the 1970s it wasn’t even on the radar.  The real explosion of belly piercings as a fashion accessory though, came in the 1990s.  After a string of high profile media coverage, navel adornment took off like a rocket into space, and hasn’t come down for a moment ever since.

The lip piercing has a far more colorful tribal past, being commonplace amongst peoples on nearly ever single continent.  The Aztecs, the Dogon, the Makolo, the Inuit, and the modern day Mursi and Surma, just to name a few.  With piercing in general growing exponentially across the globe, we’re likely to see a few more surprises in both the near and distant future.

mouth and lip modifications

In the western world, one of our favorite things is dressing in costume, especially during the Halloween season, and one of our fave characters to dress up as is of course the toothy vampire.  For most of us, this requires a little temporary modification, but what about the tribal world, where mods are meant to be permanent?  There are some pretty interesting ways the peoples of the world modify their mouths.  Just take a look:

Vamping: There are actually several tribes across the globe that modify the teeth by filing them into sharp points or nubs, and most have been doing so since long before vampires became a western obsession.  Some of the more noteworthy include several tribal groups of the African Congo, a handful of the Papuan sub-groups, the Mentawai of Indonesia, and the Hindu ethnic groups of Bali.  There are several given reasons for the tooth modifications, but the most common are tribal identification, rites of passage, and physical beauty.

 sharpened tooth modifications

Giving Lip: Several of the tribes that inhabit modern day Ethiopia, particularly the Omo River Valley region, are known to stretch their lips to outstanding proportions.  The most well known include the Mursi and Surma, but there are a couple of other things these ethnic groups might modify along with their lower lip.  Aside from piercing and stretching, many of these tribes also forcefully knock out several of the adult front teeth, most commonly the two central bottom teeth, and possibly those directly adjacent them on both sides.  Yet other African tribes, like the Sara and the Makonde might pierce and stretch the top lip instead, or wear plugs in both lips of varying proportions.

 Mursi woman with large stretched lip piercing

Tongue Twisters: Many tribal societies have long been known for tongue piercing as well.  From the Ancient Mayans, to the North American Tlingit Indians, and finally the modern day Hindus of India and Thailand, tongue piercing has been performed for countless reasons across history.  In the modern era, it’s often used as a method of worship or offering to the gods, like with those who carry out ritual piercings at Thaipusam or other vegetarian festivals.  While in a trance or completing acts of devotion at such celebrations, the cheeks and other parts of the mouth are also commonly pierced.

 a ritual tongue piercing at festival

The Bling Thing: Although not necessarily a tribal practice, our last form of mouth mod is definitely used for social identification: tooth implants.  This is literally the process of embedding a gem in a human tooth.  Mostly performed by licensed dentists, the implants, or “tooth bling,” can be the result of drilling and bonding into a living tooth, or of tooth replacement as with a partial denture or specialized veneer.  Even though it’s mostly a modernized modification, the general aesthetic of sparkling teeth can definitely be traced to ancient tribal mouth work such as the intricate tooth carvings amongst the Aztec upper class, or the shimmering mineral pigments applied to the lips and faces of the ancient Egyptians.

gem tooth implants

the art of of Japanese full body irezeumi

Like many of its fellow eastern lands, tattoo art in Japan has a rich and far reaching history.  Although it has never been proven conclusively, it’s believed that the art of placing permanent markings on the body began in this area of the world around the end of the Paleolithic era, circa 10,000 BCE.  In Japan, the art of traditional tattoo is known as irezumi, with modern tattoo falling under a completely different umbrella called yobori, and there are certainly a number of very distinctive differences.

 map of the Japanese islands

For the Japanese, tattoo art in general is still a very secretive enterprise, due to the negative connotations placed upon it by a checkered past.  Although tattoos have gone in and out of vogue for centuries amongst the social elite, for much of the Edo period leading up to the late 1800s, ink had become synonymous with deviant behavior.  Criminals were being branded with specific designs or lettering, and as the lower castes grew into what would form the basis for the modern yakuza, body markings amongst the ranks began to hold social significance.  Even today, the style of full body irezumi known as horimono, is still often associated with the mafia or criminal activity.

From the end of the Edo period up until the 1940s, tattooing in Japan was literally outlawed by the government.  Those who practiced this amazing art, along with any of their remaining clients, moved their operations underground to avoid exposure.  Enthusiasts who wore horimono hid it skillfully underneath their clothes, to ward off serious legal and social repercussions. After American occupying forces reinstated the tattoo’s legality following World War II, the stigma surrounding visible ink remained, and even today there are establishments in Japan that refuse entry or service to tattooed individuals.

The main difference between the traditional art of irezumi and the modern tattoo style that’s grown popular across the globe is the method of application itself.  To create true horimono, the artist must use hand tools in a method called tebori.  This employs the use of needle tipped, chisel-like instruments in a variety of distinct motions to create the tattoo’s lines and shading.  The differences in both coordination and timeframe are daunting comparative to machine tattooing, and artists will be apprentices for sometimes decades before striking out on their own as a master.

 traditional Japanese tattoo art subjects

Since the style of irezumi art work has been popularized in the west, many American artists have become skillful at faking it.  A good number of the traditional motifs are even still employed, such as mythical and sacred animals, waves, sakura blossoms, and fabled heroes.  Today there are only an estimated 300 tattoo shops in the entirety of Japan.

modern methods of creating Japanese style tattoos

traditional and modern Maori style tattoo art

Chances are you’ve seen a Maori style tribal tattoo on somebody before, maybe even one of your friends or family members, but many people aren’t aware of what that might entail.  The Maori are an indigenous people of New Zealand and parts of the surrounding Polynesian islands, believed to have originally settled there in the late 1200s.  The Maori tattoo, known to them as the “moko,” is one of the longest standing elements of their traditional culture, and comes with a set of social and spiritual meanings.

 world map showing New Zealand

Traditional moko were made in much the same way as other tribal tattoos during the time period: by scoring the skin and forcing in pigment.  The methods, however, were a little bit different.  Instead of standard punctures or sewing lines, the Maori used various sizes of chisel which they call “uhi.”  The sharp end of these implements would generally be made from bone and then fastened to a handle for easier use.  The chisel tips would be dipped in pigment, usually made from ashes or specific plant material, and then pounded into the skin to create a specific pattern.  This caused a unique retexturing of the skin when the tattoo healed, leaving actual grooves along the dermal surface.

 Maori moko art being performed

After a long period of cultural upheaval, the Maori population began to recover starting in the 1960s, and a resurgence of traditional culture soon followed.  During the past twenty years in particular, this ancestral style of tattooing has begun to make a comeback, with women as well as men now taking up the art.  Although the time-honored designs common to historic moko have regained popularity, their cultural significance has often been overlooked in favor of emulative fashion, most recently by a number of high profile design houses.  In the spirit of preserving their long-established heritage, a new term has consequently been coined in an effort to separate fashion-based and often historically inaccurate art of this type: kirituhi.

In the interest of maintaining culture sensitivity, a number of organizations have promoted the clear separation of kirituhi and traditional moko, as well as education concerning the sacred significance of the true moko art form.  Those who continue this amazing school of tattoo art are preserving a truly beautiful and humbling outward emblem of the inward identification with a rich and amazing Polynesian heritage.

neck stretching in Myanmar

The sovereign state of Myanmar, also referred to as Burma, is bordered by India, Thailand, and China, with a long western coastline that extends along the Bay of Bengal.  This large geographical area that rests in southeast Asia is home to the Karen people, an ethnic group composed of several smaller hill tribes.  Amongst those tribes, the Kayan Lahwi, or “Padaung” represent a population that most of us would probably recognize upon sight.  Often referred to as the “Longneck Tribe,” the Kayan’s female members have long been known for their beautiful neck rings.

 Asian map showing Myanmar

Beginning around the age of four or five, girls start wearing the “rings,” which are really a single, long brass coil that is wound around the neck to form a series of tight revolutions.  As a woman grows, new longer coils are added, bumping up the number of complete revolutions and adding to the weight of the overall assembly.  Due to the length and delicacy of the process, coils will generally only be removed in order to be switched out for new or longer replacements.

 coils from childhood to late adulthood

The nickname of “Longneck” is actually a bit of a misnomer, as traditional brass coils don’t actually lengthen the vertebrae.  The weight and rigidity of ever-longer sets of spirals eventually forces the clavicle down and creates a tilt in the ribcage, pressing the upper chest lower and flatter.  This gives the illusion of a longer, more modified neck.  After years in this state, fluid may build up in the spinal discs to accommodate the clavicle’s changing structure, lengthening the space between the cervical vertebrae.  As these gaps increase, the rings will become a requirement to alleviate strain on the neck, as the muscles will begin to weaken from nonuse.

As with other Asian hill tribes, piercings of the nose and ears are also common amongst many of the Karen groups, as well as beautiful white tribal makeup, usually worn across the cheeks and nose bridge.  Although other theories have been suggested, most of the Padaung women respond to questions concerning the reason for their neck modifications with comments about social identification and beauty or feminine appeal.

 western beauty and tribal imitation

Today much of the Padaung population is concentrated at the border of Burma and Thailand due to recent conflict with the Burmese military establishment.  The government of Burma has begun to discourage the use of neck rings, and women from the younger generations have been known to remove existing coils in favor of a less traditional lifestyle.  The popularity of permanent refugee camps has continued to evolve as a tourist attraction however, and those who come to view these amazing modifications continue to visit both Burma and Thailand, seemingly undeterred.

Mesoamerican Tribal Modification

You’ve probably heard the phrase “Mesoamerica” before and might have wondered exactly what that covers.  Mesoamerica is a region comprised of a portion of Mexico, Central America, and some of the outlying islands of the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.  This is the area where a great many of the better known pre-Columbian societies existed, including the Olmec, Epi-Olmec, Zapotec, Mayan, Toltec, and Aztec cultures.

 map of the Mesoamerican region

In many of these tribal societies, body modification was an integral part of social life, and tattooing, piercings, and stretching were common.  Other more intense forms of modification existed as well, like the skull stretching practices of the Mayas and the Inca.  When an infant was born, the head would be bound between two flat pieces of wood, the desired effect to elongate its shape.  Tooth modifications such as filing, carving, and even removal were also commonplace in many ancient Mesoamerican civilizations.

 Mesoamerican tooth filing and skull stretching

The Aztec culture was known for ritual piercing, such as bloodletting from the tongue in an effort to appease the gods.  Piercings and stretching of the septum were prevalent here as well, with larger permanent septum piercings denoting societal status.  The Aztec also stretched other piercings, like those of the ears and lower lip, and even depicted several of their tribal deities as being pierced and wearing jewelry.

Across almost all of the Mesoamerican tribes, tattooing was of measured importance too.  Reasons varied widely, from denoting a high social standing, to signifying levels of attainment in war, or marking an individual as a spiritual leader.  Many of the ancient tattoo designs common to these societies depicted spiritually venerated animals, such as the jaguar, eagle, or serpent, all of which are still common tattoo subjects today.

East African tribal modification

Ethiopia is a country in Eastern Africa, rich with life and tribal tradition.  Several rivers make a home there, including the Omo, Dawa, Awash, and a portion of the Nile.  It’s along these rivers that over 50 indigenous cultural groups make their home, each with a unique method of visual social identification and societal hierarchy.

map showing Ethiopia

The Mursi tribe, for example, are known for their large stretched lips in which handmade wooden plugs or clay plates are worn.  The women of this tribe are pierced by their mother or another female elder when they’re teenagers, and then begin the arduous process of stretching the piercing with wooden pegs, then plugs, then plates.  All of these implements will be fashioned by the girl herself, usually from the wood of any nearby tree.  Once the lip is large enough to accommodate flat plates, these will be made from earthen clay and may be inscribed with a unique design.  Women of the neighboring Surma tribe are also know to stretch their lower lips.

 Omo River Valley tribal stretching

Scarification is popular amongst Ethiopian tribes as well.  Members of the Karo tribe, both male and female, will be scarred in intricate patterns across the chest and torso.  For the men, this represents a ferocity in battle, but for women it’s very feminine and contributes to their beauty.  Women from many other tribes use scarification for this same reason or as an initiation into adulthood.  The general method across most groups is to score or puncture the skin with a sharp implement and rub either clay, colored ashes, or acidic plant juices into the sore to cause the formation of keloids (raised scars).

A great number of cultural groups also employ tattooing.  The women of the Konso tribe still engage in beautiful facial tattooing as a rite of passage, breaking the skin and rubbing in a dark, henna-like paste.  The traditional tattoo style consists of a long thin line extending from the hairline down the nose bridge, and two shorter lines across the forehead on either side.

Almost all tribes in the Omo River Valley region, and indeed most of Ethiopia, engage in some type of body decoration.  Amongst the most common are piercing and/or stretching of the ears, and painting of the body, which is usually done with pastes made of white, yellow, or red clay.  Some ethnic groups, like the Hamer tribe, even paint or dress their hair, using mixtures of clay and animal fat to roll the hair into many small bundles or locks.  Yet other groups make themselves elaborate headdresses, generally composed of mollusk shells, dried fruits, animal horn, beads, feathers, small branches, or flowers.

ear piercing, stretching, and painting

traditional Maasai ear piercings

Chances are you’ve probably heard of the Maasai, one of the largest and most well known ethnic groups in Eastern Africa.  The Maasai inhabit primarily Tanzania and Kenya, and according to recent census information, number in the hundreds of thousands.  They speak their own tribal language known as Maa, but also enjoy an education and sometimes fluency in both Swahili (the official language of Tanzania) and English.  The men of the Maasai community are raised to be skilled warriors, and their traditional dress includes brilliant red garments and beautifully intricate bead work, for which they’ve become quite famous.  One of the most interesting characteristics of traditional Masai culture though is the ear piercings.

 Kenya and Tanzania, Africa

Both men and women may have multiple piercings, but the most common is a set of stretched lobe piercings, combined with upper ear cartilage piercings, usually just under the upper helix.  The cartilage piercings may be stretched as well, though usually not by much, and are often worn with dangling beaded earrings.  In contrast to many other tribes who practice stretching, the Maasai also employ a very unique form of ear decoration.  Once the lobe has been stretched successfully, instead of continuing to wear wooden plugs, the enlarged fistula is wrapped in rows of beads, and sometimes weighted with a single, simple earring.

 stretched lobes and cartilage piercings

Matching bead work necklaces are also very popular, and more ornate dangling earrings with larger beads, stones, or metal discs are prevalent, mostly among females.  Those younger men and women who wear traditional braided hairstyles may also wear ornaments fixed into the hair, but for warriors this is mostly kept simple by tying the hair back and dressing it with red ochre, a type of volcanic clay.  In contrast to many of their neighboring ethnic groups, tattooing and scarification are almost non-existent amongst the Maasai.  Those that do have permanent body art will generally be elders or holy men, while younger warriors may use plant material or clay to fashion temporary skin markings, primarily for ceremonial purposes.

The Maasai are a perfect example of modern society’s encroachment on indigenous populations around the world, as some tribal members may at once wear traditional clothing and piercings, along with digital wrist watches and designer sandals.  Either way, their continuation of traditional modification practices makes them a visually stunning and unique African culture.