From Tattoos to Elongated Skulls: A History of Body Modification
Since emergence of humankind, people have been fascinated by art. They began by painting intricate pieces upon cave walls, and then carved statuettes and symbols out of stone and antler. Soon after, they began transferring art to their bodies. Chieftains, shamans and fierce warriors wanted to stand out from the crowd, to present themselves as divine, supernatural, or simply special. From tattoos to elaborate hairstyles, ritual scarification and piercings, body modification has known no bounds except the limits of human imagination, and their threshold for pain!
Painting of the Maori chief Tamati Waka Nene, by Gottfried Lindauer, with tattoos on his face, a Maori tradition of body modification. (Public domain)
The Ancient History of Body Modification and Tattooing
When we talk about body modification, the first thing that comes to mind is, undoubtedly, tattooing. Put simply, tattooing is the act of injecting pigment into the skin. By piercing the first layers of the skin repeatedly, one can literally draw on flesh, leaving intricate art pieces on the body in a multitude of colors. Naturally, tattooing is amongst the oldest forms of body modification.
The word “tattoo” itself comes from the Samoan language, where tatau simply means “to strike (the skin)”. The Samoan peoples practiced extensive tattooing - all across their faces and bodies. And when the European explorers first encountered them, the word caught on, as did the trend of tattooing itself! To the Europeans, it was a real novelty - and a long lost part of their history.
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Tattooing is one of the earliest practices in the world. To date, the oldest known tattoos have been discovered on Ötzi the Iceman, a naturally preserved mummy of a man who lived around 3350 BC. Thanks to the ice in which the body was encased, the remarkably well preserved skin displayed simplistic tattoos on the man’s pelvis, ankles, spine, and other joints that seemingly pained him in life. These tattoos - simple lines - have been characterized as an early form of acupuncture and pain relief.
But not all tattoos were that simple. Over time, advanced cultures have expressed their creativity in diverse ways, inspiring complex, artistic, and straight out impressive tattoos. Scythians were well known to practice complex tattooing. Several well preserved mummies from the Altai region of Siberia were excavated and showed incredible, modern-looking tattoos of mythical beasts and animals entwined all across their bodies. This was undoubtedly a painful form of body modification, reserved only for the powerful, elite members of the society. Many other cultures across the world performed tattooing, from the ancient Egyptians, to the Inuit, Dayak people, Celts, Norse, Native Americans, and many others.
Some of the tattoos found on Ötzi, a 5,300-year-old iceman found in the Italian Alps in 1991. (Marco Samadelli)
Body Scarification: A Lifelong Decoration of the Body
In comparison, tattooing today is not very painful, and it uses a range of sophisticated tools. But it wasn’t always so. Tattooing in the past was undoubtedly a painful process. Primitive societies used anything sharp at their disposal, including thorns, broken bird bones, rough needless and finely sharpened chisels. The ink was made with soot and other natural ingredients that were easily acquired.
The rest was down to patience and a high threshold for pain. Amongst some tribes of Borneo, and amongst the Polynesian peoples, tattooing is an extremely demanding process that can last for hours on end, leaving the tattooed person exhausted from experiencing such great pain. But the end result - an intricate symbol of power, masculinity, fertility, or even prowess - was well worth the trouble.
Jie Woman in Uganda with scarification on her face. (Rod Waddington / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Still, no matter how painful ancient tattooing was, it was the least extreme form of body modification. Far worse practices existed across the globe in various cultures. Numerous peoples, for example, performed complex scarifications - for various reasons. In simplest terms, scarification is the deliberate cutting of one’s skin and flesh in various patterns, so, once the wounds are healed, the end result is left marked forever on the skin. Around the globe, this was usually done as a primitive rite of passage in which young men and women underwent this painful procedure in order to be seen as more desirable or as a full-fledged part of the society.
For example, the tribes dwelling along the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea have for generations practiced a brutal form of full body scarification. As a part of a rite of initiation, young men are adorned with hundreds of small and painful incisions. Once healed, they resemble the skin of a crocodile, hence the name “crocodile scarification”. The process is extremely painful, and is done on the entire back, the buttocks, and the legs.
Numerous tribes of Africa also practice body scarification. This is usually done to enhance an individuals beauty as it is deemed attractive to the opposite sex. Other tribes perform scarification for alleged healing purposes, while some believe scars to be a currency in the afterlife.
The Batonga people of Zambia removed their front upper teeth entirely as a sign of beauty. (Wellcome Images / CC BY 4.0)
Teeth Removal and Sharpening: A Painful and Extreme Form of Beauty
Nevertheless, the deliberate scarring of one’s flesh is still not the most extreme form of body modification. Remote and primitive cultures of the world perform far more cruel and extremely painful rites, even to this day. Some of these are totally unique for the given region, and are very rarely observed anywhere else in the world.
A notable example is the practice of teeth removal, a rare form of cultural body modification. Many tribes across Africa, notably the Luo, practiced removal of six healthy frontal lower teeth. To them, it is seen as a mark of beauty, a distinguishing mark, and an “easier way to administer food to the sick”. Undoubtedly, the practice is very painful.
The Batonga people of Zambia also removed their front upper teeth entirely. For the females, this was seen as a sign of beauty. However, such a practice undoubtedly left the person with a deformed face (teeth removal changes physical appearance) and with the inability to process certain foods and speak properly.
Other cultures, on the other hand, do not remove their teeth - but sharpen them instead. This is recorded as one of the most painful body modifications in history. It makes the wearer akin to a beast or a monster, with every tooth sharpened to a point. This is noted especially amongst the Mentawai people of West Sumatra in Indonesia. This tribe considers sharpened teeth a sign of beauty, placing them in greater connection with the natural world. They also practice full body tattooing. The teeth filing is done by specially made chisels, and no anesthetics are used throughout the process.
In Africa, the Herero people practiced an even more brutal tradition. Here, the young boys and girls would have four of their lower teeth knocked out. This was followed by the upper teeth being sharpened into “inverted V” shapes. The tribe believed that a girl without this appearance would never be able to attract a partner. Filed teeth were a great sign of beauty - no matter how painful the procedure was.
Painting by Paul Kane, showing a Chinookan child in the process of having its head flattened, and an adult after the process. (Public domain)
The Mysterious Elongated Skulls: A Sign of Power?
One of the oldest and most enigmatic forms of body modification is artificial cranial deformation. Many of the world’s ancient civilizations did it, and for varying reasons. It involved the tight binding of an infant’s head. During infancy, the skull is still “pliant”, and can be shaped through pressure. As the bones continue to grow and strengthen, they remain elongated and shaped. At first, archeologists were puzzled when discovering all manner of alien-looking, elongated skulls, but the answers were later revealed.
This deformation was practiced across the world. The Native American Chinooks flattened the heads of their infants with a special plank vice, a process that resulted in a pointed skull shape. The Mayans employed a similar technique, and considered the elongated skull a sign of their elite status. By far the most notable examples of the practice belong to the ancient Paracas Culture of Peru, where skulls could be elongated to more than twice their original size.
Interestingly, the practice existed in Europe too. The Germanic tribe of Alemanni practiced head binding, as did the Burgundians, the Rugii, and the Heruli. It is believed that they adopted the custom from the Huns, where this custom was widespread.
In a few African and Asian cultures, there exists a very odd form of traditional body modification. It is based around heavy brass neck rings which are worn by women. It is most notably seen amongst the Kayan People of Myanmar, Burma. Women start wearing rings from early childhood, adding more rings throughout their lives. It is not uncommon to see women with more than twenty rings on her neck. This creates an illusion of an elongated neck - something that is not physically possible.
In truth, it is not the neck that is elongated, but the clavicles and upper ribs that become deformed over time. This deformation creates an illusion of an unnaturally long neck. The rings are often worn for life - or years at an end. They cause great discomfort, scaring, and deformation of the body, but are nevertheless an active tradition and seen as a sign of beauty.
Karen women in Thailand, a people known for their neck rings. (R.M. Nunes / Adobe Stock)
A Tradition that Survived Through Time
When we step back into history - at whichever point we choose - we are bound to encounter some form of body modification all over the world. History is filled with varied peoples that came and went, and their traditions were diverse. Interestingly, they were never squeamish when it came to modifying their natural appearance through painful and horrifying methods.
The reasons why they did it varied also. Some sought to enhance their beauty or their abilities. Others wanted to stand out from the crowd, or differentiate themselves from their enemies. Others, however, wanted to showcase their elite status and power. From permanent skin images, to elaborate scars and elongated skulls - the human body seemed an endless canvas to be played with.
Not in the least surprising is the fact that body modification survived through the ages. What was once reserved for the distant Maori peoples, the primordial tribes of Papua New Guinea, or for the diverse tribes of Africa or North America, is now available to all the people of the world and is practiced across the globe.
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In the modern day and age, people of all ages choose to deform and decorate their bodies in various ways. It is a way to stand out, express your character and personality, and to enhance your natural beauty. So nowadays it is completely normal for a person to have a piercing, a tattoo, or a stretched earlobe. These are just some of the most common forms of body modification practiced today.
Tattoo artist at work. (Fxquadro / Adobe Stock)
An Extreme Practice That Became Common
But still, there are those that take it to the extreme, surpassing even the primitive practices of ancient tribes. Popular forms of extreme body modifications are split tongues, genital mutilation and piercing, full body tattoos, blackwork, implantation, scarification, eyeball tattooing, deformation, and even amputation. In the modern times, where almost anything is considered normal and taboos are nearly non-existent, it has become hard to stand out and be unique. That’s why some people cross the threshold of pain and tolerance, going all out and resorting to these painful and extreme forms of body modification.
Throughout history, body modification in some form or other is a universal practice. It is a part of humanity that constitutes almost natural behavior. Just as the ancient Scythian horsemen tattooed their bodies elaborately, so do we - thousands of years later. The ancient Picts were reportedly heavily tattooed. And not much has changed across the centuries: tattoos are still a popular thing. So, whatever your style is and whichever type of body modification you choose, it’s worth knowing that you’re not doing anything controversial. It’s been around forever!
Top image: Even Viking warriors used body modification to stand out. Source: Fotokvadrat / Adobe Stock
Bailey, D., and Faulkner, N. 2018. The History of Tattoos and Body Modification. The Rosen Publishing Group.
Mercury, M. 2000. Pagan Fleshworks: The Alchemy of Body Modification.
Seiners, T. 2000. The Body Aesthetic: From Fine Art to Body Modification. University of Michigan Press.