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 sacks 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.
ScarificationPhoto: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Scarification is a way of creating a unique imprint on your skin similar to a tattoo. But rather than using ink, it requires that the person cut their skin or brand themselves, leaving wounds, which once healed, leave a series of scars in an intricate design. The procedure was by done ethnic groups in Suriname, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, and as well as other places in Melanesia and Australia.
Though the practice and cultural significance of scarification has lessened in the last century, anthropologists and ethnologists have multiple theories to why it may have been practiced. Because the scarification rituals and practices in some ethnic groups were often exerted on people in or reaching puberty, it may be a rite of passage for children entering adulthood. There are other cases, however, where scarification was primarily practiced on young children, suggesting it may have a physical and mental 'hardening' that allowed children to deal with the hardships and stress throughout the rests of their lives. Other anthropologists suggest they have aesthetic purposes as a sign of beauty or to attract mates.
Because the tradition has been practiced by so many different ethnic groups, it is fair to consider that each people had their own purpose and cultural significances connected to scarification.
Among the Apatani people of Arunachal Pradesh, India, women wore nose plugs, called Yaping Hurlo, that were inserted in the flesh of the outer nose during girlhood and replaced by incrementally larger plugs throghout their lives. Though it's common among older generations of the Apatani, it is no longer practiced.
Though the origins of Yaping Hurlo is unclear there is a commonly accepted story, stating it came out of a raiding culture that was common between villages in Arunachal Pradesh. Supposedly the practice was intended to make Apatani women less attractive, protecting the women from neighboring tribes who sought to kidnap them. According to this theory, there is no animosity between the villages of Arunachal Pradesh today due to modern nationalism, thus no need for the practice to continue.
Tooth ModificationPhoto: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Among many different ethnic groups around the world, tooth filing or chiseling is a common body modification. Some groups file down their teeth to make them flat while others sharpen them.
The practice of tooth sharpening was once common among different ethnic groups in Indonesia and around the Malay Peninsula, including the Batak in Nothern Sumatra and the Iban of Borneo, but was made illegal when the nation unified in the 1950s. In Western Sumatra, however, the Mentawai people still occasionally practice pasi piat. They customarily sharpen women's teeth both because they consider it more attractive and because it is meant to help maintain a balance between the woman's body and soul. There is no set age that a woman must undergo pasi piat, nor is it mandatory. Women, however, reportedly feel social pressure to do it in order to achieve local beauty standards and please their husbands.
Tooth sharpening was also once practiced by peoples in multiple parts of Africa, including the Dogon of Mali who sharpened their teeth as a visual metaphor of their role in the world and the Makonde of Tanzania who sharpened teeth to gain status as an adult in the tribe.
In Bali, Indonesia, both men and women customarily practice a teeth-filing ritual, called matatah, as a rite of passage to adulthood that signifies the internal relationship between man and animal. By filing the person's canines flat, it is meant to signify maturity and responsibility.
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.