Tattoos and piercings are so commonplace in the 21st century it's easy to forget they actually mean something. Previous to their explosion into mainstream culture, they really meant something. Getting pierced or tattooed with or by a friend is something you'll never forgot. Why is that? What is is about tattoos, piercings, branding, and other body mods that makes them so intensely meaningful? On top of the significance of the individual piece, having certain crazy body modifications gives us a sense of tribal belonging.
Such is the case with bizarre tribal body modifications around the world. To the lay person, these may seem nonsensical. Grotesque. Horrifying. But each culture from which these mods originate has its own perspective regarding the human body, and with nearly every entry below, there is a deep-seated belief that justifies the "damages" done.
And then, well... then there are the guys who get their scrotums split just because. So hold onto your nose rings (and whatever else), because we're taking a look at some of the craziest body mods out there.
Tattoos are a way of creating a unique imprint on your skin. Scarification takes things one step further, by literally carving the skin away. Once healed, the wounds leave a series of scars in an intricate design. The procedure was by done tribes in what are now Suriname, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, and other places for a number of reasons, including religious and rite-of-passage rituals.
Though not heavily practiced in the 21st century, undergoing scarification was seen as a testament to bravery. Thus, the more scars, the more courageous the owner. It was also a seen as a sign of beauty, and similar scars were displayed by members of families, to show their bond.
Scrotal and Penis Splitting
Scrotal splitting is more or less exactly what it sounds like - splitting the scrotum in half. There are various ways to achieve this, and if you're interested, you can check out this detailed page rife with graphic photos of split nutsacks. Eventually, the split scrotum heals, creating two separate scrotums, each with one ball. Scrotal splitting is in no way a tribal or religious practice, but a modern phenomena unique to those interested in extreme body modification. If you're inclined to call them a tribe, so be it.
However, tribes around the world have (NSFW link. btw) performed a ritual modification known as penile subincision. Penile subincision entails splitting the urethra, starting at the top of the penis and working your way downward. The practice affects urination to the extent that most men who have undergone the procedure sit or squat to pee. Some carry tubes with them to help aim, and others use the scrotum to cover the slit so pee can shoot freely from the tip of dong. The practice was performed in Australia, Africa, and South America, and by Polynesian and Melanesian cultures of the Pacific islands.
The not-so-distant cousin of lip-stretching (also on this list), nose-plugging works in a similar way: punch holes in the sides of the nostrils and insert plugs. The custom was commonplace among the Apatani people of Arunachal Pradesh, India, though hasn't been practiced since the 1970s.
It's said the practice of nose-plugging, which was performed on women (along with facial tattooing) when they came of age, originated as a way to mark members of the tribe. In the event that rival tribes tried to steal Apatani women, the nose plugs and face tattoos would make those women taken easy to identify in the future.
Let's say you're rooting through an archeological dig site and stumble across a skull like the one pictured. While it may look like something History Channel would peddle to bored afternoon viewers as an ancient alien it is, in fact, the head of a Peruvian aboriginal with a cranial deformation, one done on purpose, no less.
It's one thing to deliberately mutilate your body as part of a tribal ceremony, it's another to have your parents gently squish your soft baby head between two boards as an infant. Or wrap the head so tightly in ropes it changes shape. As was the case with the Inca, who believed an elongated skull was a sign of nobility and connection to the spirits.
The Mantawaian, a tribal people indigenous to the small islands surrounding Sumatra, in Indonesia, file women's teeth for aesthetic and religious purposes. Tribal beliefs dictate that members undergo body modification, including heavy tattooing, to satisfy the soul. The Mantawaian believe if the soul is unsatisfied with its body, it may leave, killing the body.
Teeth filing, which a Mantawaian shaman performs using crude tools and no anesthetic, is believed to satisfy the soul, and make women more beautiful. The procedure is rarely performed in the 21st century, but does still happen on occasion, and only voluntarily.
Various other groups throughout history have filed their teeth, primarily for religious reasons. These groups include tribes from Bali, Sudan,Vietnam, Mexico, China, and Australia.
While not exactly a modification in the traditional sense, the act of circumcision came about due to spiritual beliefs about the human body, like many other entries on this list.
Although there's an ongoing debate about whether or not male circumcision classifies as genital mutilation, one way or the other, it's still taking something sharp to something on a person and removing a part of that something.
Originating long before the Biblical account of Abraham (Genesis 17), there is evidence African tribes used circumcision as a way to purify the human body, reduce sensation, and to subdue sexual desires. By that logic, it was believed that if a man does not enjoy sexual intercourse, then he has not sinned in the eyes of god.
Female circumcision, common among certain African and Middle Eastern tribes, is unquestionably a form of genital mutilation, and is a major issue for many major NGOs, including the World Health Organization. Female genital mutilation (FGM) entails removing external parts of female genitalia, including the clitoris and labia. In some case, the vulva is sewn shut but for the urethra.
FGM has been practiced for more than 2,000 years, and had tribal roots. It may have been done to aristocratic Egyptian women during the ancient dynasties, as a form of distinction. It was also done when black slaves were sold to Muslims in the Middle East, and Islamic tribe mutilated slaves's genitals to dull sexual desire and keep them virgins.
The Chinese custom of foot-binding began in court society in the 10th century and became commonplace in all social classes during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD). The practice was widespread through the mid-20th century. So what is foot-binding? Writing for Smithsonian Magazine, Amanda Foreman describes it succinctly:
First, her feet were plunged into hot water and her toenails clipped short. Then the feet were massaged and oiled before all the toes, except the big toes, were broken and bound flat against the sole, making a triangle shape. Next, her arch was strained as the foot was bent double. Finally, the feet were bound in place using a silk strip measuring ten feet long and two inches wide.
The practice has its roots in the legend of a dancer, Yao Niang, who had her feet bound into the crescent shape of a new moon, and Li Yu, a prince who loved her. It's also been suggested that Li Yu was just a creep who had a fetish for tiny feet. Over time, the Chinese realized that, when women strained their feet, it also made their pelvic muscles stronger, resulting in stronger vaginal muscles as well.
Debate on whether or not this qualifies as a tribal practice probably has its roots in how we define tribes - were not the Chinese aristocracy of the Song Dynasty a member of a tribe who came to dominate large areas due to its cultural and military influence?
The practice of lip-stretching using a plate, plug, or disc originated as early as 500 BC, and is still common with Surma and Mursi people in the 21st century, who live across western Ethiopia and South Sudan. The process is relatively simple: take a small disc, insert it into a pierced hole in the labret, and gradually stretch out the skin with larger plates (some nearly 60 cm in diameter).
The use of lip plates varies by location; some tribes believing it has oratory significance, meaning that the larger the plate, the greater the orator. In other cultures, plate are symbolic of a girl's maturity.