Anthropological Concepts: Body Art

All cultures decorate and make modifications to the human body, whether it is temporary or permanent. This is called body art.  Body Art includes cutting, styling, or dying hair; body piercing; body painting; tattooing; and scarification. 

Body Art: Hair. Image of a Himba girl who has her hair in a traditional style.

Hair

Cutting, styling, or dying hair is found in many cultures, but it can mean something different in each place. While some of us in Western cultures may see hairstyles and beards as a matter of personal taste or just a fashion statement, these things have a purpose in other cultures. For example, in parts of Africa, hairstyles are used to indicate a woman’s status and show whether the woman is married or not.

Body Art. Image of people from an African tribe who wear lip plates.

Piercing

Another form of body art is body piercing, which is found all over the world. The ears are pierced the most, and some cultures stretch their ear lobes so they can insert large ear spools in the hole. Some Africans and some Native Americans cut holes in either the upper lips, lower lips or both. Then the holes are stretched, and large lip plugs are placed in the holes. 

Body Art. Image of a man with yellow and orange paint on his face and body.

Body Painting

Body painting is another type of body art. Some cultures only paint their faces, and others paint their whole bodies. For example, in Sudan, girls paint their whole bodies either red or yellow until the beginning of their first pregnancy. As another example, the aboriginal people of Australia paint their bodies with red and yellow ochre, white clay, and black charcoal.

Body Art. Image of facial tattoos on a Maori man.

Tattooing

Another form of body art is tattooing. There is evidence of tattooing far back in human history, and tattoos may even go back to the Upper Paleolithic Era, which is 10,000 to 40,000 years ago! In New Zealand, the Maori people gave special privileges to those with tattoos. If a man had tattoos, he was allowed to build canoe houses, carve wood, weave nets, and make weapons. If a woman had tattoos, she was allowed to help in the garden harvesting sweet potatoes. 

Image of a design made up of scars on a man's back.

Scarification

Scarification is yet another form of body art. This is when the skin is deliberately scarred, in order to make designs on the skin.  In some cultures, only men are scarred, in others, both men and women are scarred. Depending on the culture, the scarred design may be on the face or another part of the body. It is often performed as part of an initiation. For example, the Nuer in southern Sudan create scars on the foreheads as part of a male initiation process. A series of horizontal cuts are made across the foreheads of older boys, and this shows that the boys have become men. 

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