Archive for tribal piercing

We all know that ear lobe piercing is the most common form of body modification worldwide, and depending on the country, piercings of the ear cartilage fall somewhere in the top three most prevalent underneath the lobe.  But what about multiple ear piercings and ear stretching?  Well they aren’t just commonplace in Westernized nations and amongst African tribesmen.  In fact, there’s a particular place in Eastern India where multiple ear piercings and stretched lobes are incredibly average: Orissa.

 Orissa India

Orissa (officially spelled Odisha in India) is an East Indian coastal state that rests on the Bay of Bengal.  It is home to over three dozen unique tribal groups, most of whom practice ritual piercing, tattooing, or both, and among these is the Soura tribe.  The Soura inhabit areas of the province that lie inland and are divided into two basic groups, primarily definable by their area of settlement and manner of dress.  The real point of interest though, is their beautiful ear jewelry.

Soura women commonly have multiple piercings spanning at least half the length of their helix, or outer ear rim.  The cartilage in this area is generally adorned with several silver colored rings, and the lobe as well as one or both nostrils will be pierced as well.  One of the defining characteristics of the Soura is in fact their very large stretched ear lobe piercings, often described as hanging so low as to touch or brush the shoulder.

 Soura style ear piercings

Much like other tribal cultures, the piercings themselves are performed using sharp plant material, and the subsequent stretching of the lobes is accomplished primarily with dead stretching.  Though it should be noted that, because they are hand carving their own plugs of balsa and other woods, the difference from one size to the next is under far more control than with traditional Western dead stretching, which utilizes a pre-existing set of sizes.

 gauge sizes for ear jewelry

Today a portion of the Soura have been converted by missionaries and assimilated into modern society, but large tribal offshoots still remain, following their traditional religious, social, and cultural practices.  Their homeland of Orissa is considered a place of great unspoiled beauty and cultural preservation, and hosts a famous 13th century sun temple.

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Piercings around the nose and mouth are common even in Western culture, and all have been assigned their names accordingly; labret, monroe, medusa, septum… But what about piercings that are so unique that the English language has no need of a name for them?  That’s exactly the type of piercings that are seen amongst the Matsés.

South America Map

The Matsés and Matis, formerly considered by outsiders as a single group, make their home in the Javari River valley of the Amazon, adjacent the border of Brazil and Peru.  As with many tribal cultures, piercing here is common, but it’s the amount of piercings and the way they’re worn that really sets the Matsés apart from their fellow natives.  They wear long spindles in their nostrils and lower lips that give the appearance of whiskers.

 Amazon indian woman with whiskers

Due to their interesting jewelry choices and the once common practice of tattooing tooth-like markings around the lips and jaw, the Matsés have been nicknamed “jaguar people,” and to look at traditional modifications amongst the tribe, it’s easy to see why.  The women in particular wear these piercings and markings, along with body paint, as a show of strength, and the tribe has been said to revere the agility and command of the majestic jaguar as a jungle predator.

Although little research has been conducted to corroborate, the general practice of piercing and tattooing amongst the Matsés is believed to fall in line with that of other known Amazonian tribes.  Traditional methods of both cultural arts would involve soot for coloring, along with natural saps, resins, or juices from the indigenous fruit-bearing flora and the use of palm thorn or other sharp or tuberous plant material to pierce the skin.

 tribal tattooing with soot and plant needle

Although the Matsés and their fellow Panoan-speaking tribes are still in existence today, unrest, forced migration, and the introduction of modern diseases has dwindled their numbers, and most no longer practice the traditional tattooing of their faces and chests.

 

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In the modern sense, many of us think of body modification as piercings and tattoos, but historically, true body mod has included so much more.  From foot binding in china, to corsetry in the UK, and skull stretching in South America, we explore the unusual, beautiful, and amazing ways that tribal cultures around the world have been modifying for millennia.

 piercings, stretches, and tattoos

Some piercings and modifications are universally acknowledged, but others, like skull stretching or “head binding,” are relatively less well known.  The act of reshaping the skull through various manipulations has been performed worldwide, like in ancient Iraq and Greece, by the Huns and East Germanic Tribes, and by Australian Aboriginal groups and some North American Indians, but perhaps the most notable example of cranial modification existed amongst the Maya.  The Mayan Indians would bind the heads of their infants using boards or splints at the front and back in order to lengthen the skull through the parietal and occipital regions (the top and back of the head).  This gave the skull a pleasing appearance and in some cases denoted social standing.

 skull stretched from bindingan elongated human skull

Another less well known modification practice is tooth sharpening.  Although the sharpening of the canines has risen in recent years in Western culture, this is primarily due to the rise in vampire lore, and is generally done for aesthetic reasons only.  Amongst the tribes of Asia, Australia, Africa, and South America however, the practice of tooth filing has been largely a spiritual or social endeavor.  A great example of this still exists in modern day Bali, where both men and women have the upper teeth filed as a rite of passage.  The teeth are considered to symbolize negative emotions and personality traits, and are modified to remove these characteristics.

While many such coming of age rituals are common to both male and female adolescents, some are restricted to only the women, like the neck stretching common to tribes in Asia.  Almost exclusive to this area of the world, neck stretching has been primarily practiced amongst small groups in Nepal, Burma, Tibet, and Thailand, with a few examples amongst North African cultures.  The Kayan, for example, an ethnic group from Burma, may begin stretching the neck of girl as early as two.  A wound coil or set of “neck rings” is wrapped around the neck to lengthen it’s appearance, and subsequent revolutions to create new rings are added as age progresses.  Contrary to popular belief, this eventually modifies the structure of the body, not by lengthening the vertebrae in the neck itself, but by forcing down the shoulders and collar bone, adjusting the angle of the ribs.

 Thai woman with elongated neckThai woman with neck rings

Another modification practice common solely to females is foot binding.  Practiced in China and some of the surrounding area, foot binding is now illegal in Republic of China, due to its potential to cripple participants.  A small group of Chinese women (mostly in rural China) still exist with modified feet, which are created during the toddler years when the arch of the foot is still pliant.  The feet are soaked, broken, and bound tightly in ten feet of bandage to create the illusion of a tiny foot, the most coveted being the “golden lotus,” a foot of just three inches in length.

 shoes worn in Chinese foot bindingChinese shoes that would be worn on bound feet

Although modifications like foot binding may seem extreme to Western cultures, other manipulations of the skin or bone structure are often seen as less than menacing, like branding.  Now practiced primarily as a voluntary form of body art, branding was historically used in nearly every cultural context as either a punishment for crime, or a permanent mark of identification for those who were slaves or had committed criminal acts.  One of the only examples of branding in a positive social sense continues to this day amongst certain religious sects in India.  Here, the branding is seen as a religious initiation and symbolizes membership to a particular spiritual group.

 male performer with scarred brandsa performer with decorative skin brands

Likewise with modern scarification, tongue splitting, and ear cropping, inflictions once used as a punishment have become voluntary acts of modification used to create a specific visual effect.  Perhaps the only type of body mod that has continuously been purely aesthetic is corsetry.  Short term medical use of loose laced corsets not withstanding, corsetry has been largely a beauty and fashion industry advent for centuries.  Beginning in the first half of the 20th century, some of the best corsetieres have set up shop in France and the UK, where many of the smallest waists in the world have been recorded through the means of tightlacing.  And today, although common in the Americas as well, England still holds a high concentration of corset makers and wearers, as the garments themselves are prevalent in the flourishing burlesque scene and amongst other social groups.

 real vintage corsets with tiny waistsvintage corsetry

Although we may not understand certain body mod rituals from a cultural point of view, the human race has been altering our appearance through various means for thousands of years, and will likely continue to do so for thousands more.

Modern science tells us that tattooing and other forms of body modification have been around for thousands of years, but it’s a lot more fun to find actual proof that can be examined by human eyes.  Exactly the kind of proof provided by the hippest mummy ever found, the Man from Hauslabjoch, or as he’s better known, Ötzi the Iceman.

 cave man with tattoosDepiction of cave man from the copper age

Ötzi was discovered in 1991 in the Ötztal Alps (hence the moniker Ötzi) by German tourists Helmut and Erika Simon, who were hiking with friends in the area.  After some dispute, he was found to be on the Italian side of the Italy-Austria border, and following intense examination at Innsbruck University, was placed on display with his artifacts at an archeological museum in Bolzano, South Tyrol, Italy.

 home of Otzi the IcemanBolzano, Italy, resting place of Otzi the iceman

The iceman was estimated to be approximately 5’5″ tall (1.65 meters) and weigh in at around 110 pounds (about 50 kilos, or just under 8 stone).  One of the more interesting things about him though, is that the 5,300 year old mummy was found to have several tattoos and ears that had not only been pierced, but stretched as well to about the equivalent of a 0 to 00 gauge.  Even more amazingly, the locations of the tattoos suggest that they may have been used for something never before known to exist amongst bronze age tribes: acupressure type pain relief treatment.

Ötzi was found through examinations utilizing radiological imaging to have osteochondrosis of the lumbar spine and arthritic degeneration of the knee and ankle joints, both forms of orthopedic disease.  And interestingly, many of his tattoos line up with these areas, other joints, or modern acupressure points that would be used to relieve arthritis pain.  It was more recently discovered through the mapping of his genome that the iceman’s conditions may have been related to DNA containing Borrelia burgdorferi, making him the first known case of human Lyme disease.

 acupressure points and tattoosarthritis acupressure points and the tattoo styles of the iceman

Primitive tattoos were often performed by lacerating or piercing the skin and then applying pigments made of soot.  The soot could vary in color due to ground minerals at the site of a fire, the types of wood burned, or purposeful inclusion of trace metals or precious stones, as is the case with Ötzi, whose tattoos are slightly bluish in color and made using carbon soot.  As with most early tattoo designs, they’re composed primarily of lines and dots with some marks intersecting.

His body modifications may not have been big news in his own time, but Ötzi the iceman is one of the coolest and most significant finds of our time.  A tattooed and pierced mummy?  Maybe the best historically accurate Halloween costume ever.

According to historic record and compiled modern statistics, piercing of the nostril is the second most prevalent piercing practiced globally, falling short only to piercing of the ear lobe.  But did you know that there’s one area of the world where nose piercing has been mentioned even in sacred texts dating back over 3,000 years ago?  That place is Asia, or more specifically, India.

 Indian poster showing nose piercingIndian poster depicting nose jewelry (source: WGSN)

Nose piercing, it is said, was brought to India by way of the Middle East, and is made mention of in the Vedas (vey-duhs), sacred texts adhered to by the Orthodox Hindus of the Indian subcontinent.  The Vedas consist of four Samhitas (suhm-hi-tahs), or collections, and the oldest, the Rigveda (rig-vey-duh), contains the knowledge associated with the practice of traditional Indian medicine called Ayurveda (ah-yer-vey-duh).  In Ayurveda, the piercing of a woman’s nose is commonly performed to help lessen the pains associated with childbirth.

In certain groups, this piercing may be performed on the eve of a woman’s wedding, having symbolic significance in accordance with the act of marriage and the associated onset of bearing children.  Traditionally, large ornate nose jewelry will be worn, with a chain connecting the nose hoop to the ear or hair.  The chain will then be removed by the woman’s husband on the night of the honeymoon.

 nose piercing with bridal chain

Some Indian tribal cultures also dictate the piercing of both nostrils, as in the Tamil, Pashtun, and Pahari, and other cultural groups common to Southern India.  Yet others, like the Apa Tani and those in Northeastern India may pierce one or both sides and subsequently stretch their nostril piercings, some to an inch or more in diameter.  Septum piercing is common to particular ethnic groups throughout India as well, and also to the surrounding areas such as Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Burma, and even Pakistan.

 women with septum piercings

Nose piercing has become extremely popular in Western culture since the 1970s, and some may be interested to know that the return of American and European youth who had ventured abroad to exotic lands like India, is largely responsible for this cultural anomaly.

Septum piercing has recently been on a meteoric rise in popular Western culture, with the trend of smaller gauge septum piercings for women being fed largely through music culture and celebrity piercing publicity.  For native and tribal cultures all over the world however, piercing of the septum denotes much more than a proper fashion sense, and has been in practice for hundreds, or even thousands of years.  Stretching of the septum as well is prevalent and meaningful in these societies, and many ritualistic practices are still in existence today, like that of the Bundi tribe of Papua, New Guinea.

stamp depicting New Guinea tribesmanNew Guinea stamp depicting tribal septum decoration

It was the various tribes of New Guinea and their commonly worn nose tusk made out of bore bone that popularized the traditional view of septum piercing as a tribal practice.  Indeed if you’ve ever seen a photograph of a tribesman wearing feathers and shells with a bone through the septum, it is likely a native Indian from New Guinea.

Amongst the Bundi, the septum piercing is a social ritual for young men, representing their ascension into adulthood, and is usually performed around the late teens.  The piercing itself is done by a tribal elder with small pieces of bat bone and tuberous sweet potato, and afterwards it may be stretched to accommodate pieces of tusk or bone plugs up to an inch in diameter.  For many tribes indigenous to the same region of New Guinea, septum piercing may be done younger, along with ear piercing, nostril piercing, and stretching in various stages.  Often the painting of the face or body and letting of blood that naturally occurs from the piercing are thought to represent the boy’s separation from the world of women in general and particularly from his mother.

traditional New Guinea septum decorationtraditional Papuan septum decoration: bone tusks

Other New Guinea tribes that practice ritualistic piercing of the septum include the Kiman, the Kangi, and the Asmat.

In the United States, the UK, Australia, and other Western countries, the stretching of lip piercings is something fairly new, but in other areas of the world, lip stretching has been practiced for thousands of years.  In Iran, the Sudan, and even parts of Central America, for example, lip plugging or plating were common practices millennia ago.  Even in modern times, the practice of stretching the lip to accommodate a large plate is still commonly seen amongst tribal cultures, particularly in Ethiopia near the Omo River Valley.  Two tribes from this area, the Mursi and the Surma, are known for the size of their beautiful and decorative lip plates.

Decorations worn by Mursi and Surma childrenMursi and Surma girls from Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration from Africa, By Hans Silvester (source:WGSN)

In the Mursi tribe, girls will begin the process when they’re a teenager, usually around 15 to 17 years old.  The initial “piercing’ is actually more like scalpelling, as the lip is cut to an incision size of at least a whole centimeter to accommodate a wooden pin.  Afterwards, the lip will be stretched by the insertion of progressively larger wooden plugs which the girl will often carve herself.  This method of stretching is not unlike what we would think of as “dead stretching,” although the difference in size from one plug to the next is under the control of whomever does the stretching, rather than having one specific pre-designated set of sizes.  According to many who have studied the Mursi tribe, the size of the final healed modification appears to be up to the individual, and as it is a rather painful process, some will go larger than others.  Once the bottom lip has been stretched to a size of approximately 4 to 6 centimeters in diameter, plates will begin to be used rather than plugs, and these will generally be handmade by their wearer out of clay.

actual size of a Mursi lip plate

The exact meaning and symbolism of the lip plates worn by Omo River tribes has been speculated upon again and again, but one of the more likely theories is that, much like standard piercing in the West, the stretching of the lip is a rite of passage designed to symbolize passing into adulthood or belonging to a particular social group.

Beginning many decades ago, body modification has been on a slow upward climb in terms of acceptance in Western culture.  But what about the forms of modification that were already in practice around the world, long before piercing and tattoo parlors started springing up in the U.S. and Europe?  In a way, the modern primitive movement is a revival of those practices.

Modern Primitive practices

We all know about piercing and tattooing, and have probably at least heard about dermal implants and scarification, but while watching a modern primitive performance, it suddenly becomes clear that “body modification” encompasses so much more than just these things.  The sculpting, shaping, adornment, and contortion of the human body in any way can also fall under this umbrella, and this is where primitivism finds a foothold.  Practices thought of as primitive in nature because they’ve been largely rejected by modern society become a part of the mix, including tribal rituals from all over the world.  The stretching of the human neck by use of rings, branding, implantation, the surgical sculpting of bones, corsetry, suspension, stretching of piercings, splitting of the tongue, and tribal tattooing, are just some of the things that are considered modification.

forms of modification

Fakir Musafar, often referred to as the father of the Modern Primitives movement, and himself having coined the term, is known for practicing these elements and more in a less traditional, shamanic sense.  Like many everyday people who have more mainstream piercings or body art, a core belief behind the primitive desired to be modified is simply that it’s transcendent to know what modification feels like.  In a world that some see as fairly desensitized, experiencing any feeling completely, even pain, can be an expression of spiritualism.  In another sense as well, the ability to sculpt our bodies into what we want them to be is one of things unique to human beings alone, and in many ways can be thought of as connecting us as a species.

tribal and primitive style ear adornments

As many once rejected practices find their way into the realm of societal acceptance, the primitives movement adopts more extreme forms of modification to remain outside the norm.  And although we might not all be running to the parlor to get a brand or a subdermal implant, the future of piercing art promises to be interesting and beautiful.