Sunday, November 29, 2009

246. The Baseline Scenarios -- Part 22: Scarification, Body Painting, Tatooing

The inscription of symbols on the body, in the form of scarification, painting or tatooing, is a practice found among indigenous peoples in just about every corner of the world. And, as one might expect, such practices are an important aspect of both Pygmy and Bushmen culture:
The principal element in the [first kill] rite is the scarification of the boy. The purpose of this is to put into the boy's body, through little cuts in his skin, substances that, in !Kung belief, will make him a successful hunter. The scarifications remain visible on the skin for a lifetime; they show that the man has been "cut with meat". (Lorna Marshall, Nyae Nyae !Kung Beliefs and Rites 1999: 154).
The evening before I left, before the singing started, three of the great hunters took me off into the forest. They said they wanted to be sure that I would come back again, so they thought they would make me "of the forest." There was Njoho, the killer of elephants; his close friend and distant relative, Kolongo; and Moke, an elderly Pygmy who never raised his voice, and to whom everyone listened with respect. Kolongo held my head and Njobo casually took a rusty arrow blade and cut tiny but deep vertical flits in the center of my forehead and above each eye. He then gauged out a little flesh from each slit and asked Kolongo for the medicine to put in. . . [He rubbed the black ash-paste hard into the cuts until it filled them and congealed the blood that still flowed. And there it is today, ash made from the plants of the forest, a part of the forest that is a part of the flesh, carried by every self-respecting Pygmy male. And as long as it is with me it will always call me back (Colin Turnbull, The Forest People).
Pygmy and Bushmen bodies are also painted for various reasons, including, of course, magic:
[Anjo] is a paste made from the heart, brain and eyes, sometimes from other parts as well, of some highly prized game. . . The paste is put on the body, most often the forehead, of the hunter and of members of his family (Turnbull, Wayward Servants, p. 155).
As at birth, there is a certain amount of decoration of the body with what might be considered as forest charms, and toward the end of the [Elima] festival the girls paint each other with a white forest clay (ibid., p. 135).

Pigment is still used for body painting among the few remaining Bushmen of the Kalahari in the context of rites of passage and other ceremonies central to the well being of the group (New perspectives on prehistoric art, by G√ľnter Berghaus, p. 115).

While the line between scarification and tatooing is not always clear, one has the impression that tattooing in the sense that's usually understood, i.e., incising the body with specific pigments, is not practiced by either Pygmies or Bushmen, though it's not difficult to see how tattooing could have developed from a combination of body painting and scarification.

In any case, examples of all three practices can be found in many different parts of the world:

Man with scarification marks -- Africa

Tembu Girls, early stages of scarification --Africa

Maori Facial Tatoo

Pygmy Woman with body painting and scarification.

Tasmanian Woman

Great Andamanese -- Scarification.

The great question has always been whether or not all or most of these traditions are related and, if so, how. If scarification and body painting were already established as traditions among HBP, can we assume all traditions of bodily decoration stem from the same source? As I see it: why not? What exactly would be the alternative explanation? Any thoughts?

1 comment:

German Dziebel said...

I quickly checked, and it appears that Australian aborigines didn't use tattoos either. Body paint and body scarification remain the two principal types of ritual body art. Scarification is present in America (e.g., among Tapirape, Kayapo and others in Amazon), although body painting is much more frequent. Scarification seems to be associated with violent initiation rituals. In North America, ritual scarification linked to self-torture seems to be a late innovation associated with the spread of Sun Dance in the Plains area in the past 500 years, although it involves no design but strictly scars left from the buffalo heads pinned through the skin.

Typologically, I wonder, if there's a continuity between mutilation discussed in the previous post and scarification.