In Africa, body scarification has served as an important element of the culture of different groups.
This ancient African tribal body art involves purposely scarring the skin to create raised marks and or complete patterns.
Scarification involves placing superficial incisions on the skin using stones, glass, knives, or other tools to create meaningful pictures, words, or designs. This permanent body modification can communicate a plethora of cultural expressions. From Ethiopia to Papua New Guinea, scarification produces scars of different sizes, shapes, and positions to show clan identity, status within a community, passage into adulthood, or spiritual significance.
It’s generally believed that scarring was developed because the dark pigmented skin of the indigenous African people was not ideal for tattooing.
In the process of body scarification, scars are formed by cutting or branding the skin by varying methods (sometimes using further sequential aggravating wound healing methods at timed intervals, like irritation), to purposely influence wound healing to scar more and not scar less.
There are currently four competing hypotheses behind the behavior ecology of scarification:
- A rite of passage
- A hardening/trauma procedure
- A nonadaptive sexually selected character
- Or an adaptive pathogen-driven sexually selected character.
There are also aesthetic, religious, and social reasons for scarification. For example, scarification has been widely used by many West African tribes to mark milestone stages in both men and women’s lives, such as puberty and marriage.
It is also used to transmit complex messages about identity; such permanent body markings may emphasize fixed social, political, and religious roles. Tattoos, scars, brands, and piercings, when voluntarily acquired, are ways of showing a person’s autobiography on the surface of the body to the world.
Tribe members unwilling to participate in scarification were generally not included in the group’s activities, and are often shunned from their society.
According to anthropologist Grace Harris, group members lacking the normal characteristics consistent of the group are not considered as acquiring the full standings as agents in their society, they would also lack the capacity for meaningful behavior, such as greeting, commanding, and stating. Therefore, scarification can transform partial tribe members into normal states entirely accepted by the group.
Scarification is a form of language not readily expressed except through extensive and intricate greetings, and gives the ability to communicate fully which is a key element for being considered as a normal member of the group.
Scarification is usually more visible on darker skinned people than tattoos.
Endorphins can be released in the scarification process that can induce a euphoric state.
Scarring on the abdomen of women in many tribes is used to denote a willingness to be a mother. Her ability to tolerate the pain of scarring was an indication of her emotional maturity and readiness to bear children.
Scarification can be used for healing, increasing their cultural desirability. It may help a patient change their status from victim to survivor. These individuals pass through various kinds of ritual death and rebirth, and redefine the relationship between self and society through the skin.
- Most people in certain regions of Africa who have “markings” can be identified as belonging to a specific tribe or ethnic group. Some of the tribes in Northern Ghana who use the markings are the Gonjas, Nanumbas, Dagombas, Frafras and Mamprusis.
- Some groups in Northern Ghana like the Dagomba use scarification to treat certain ailments such as convulsions, measles, pneumonia, stomach pains, and so on. It is believed that these sicknesses originate in the blood, so the skin is cut by a traditional healer and powder or potion is then applied to the wound so that it may travel directly to the bloodstream.
Research has also been conducted to show a connection in the different anatomical locations between the sexes as linked to pathogen prevalence in their area.
Scarification in these areas is thought to be done to clearly show which individuals are pathogen-resistant mates.
It is thought that as pathogen severity increase, so should permanent marking of body areas that are attended to for evaluating attractiveness and mate quality.
Females were predicted to scarify their breasts and stomachs (due to the stomach being a component of waist-to-hip ratio), both indicative of youthfulness and fertility. Males were predicted to scarify those body parts indicative of sexual maturity and strength, such as the face, shoulders, and arms.
The findings of this research revealed that pathogen prevalence predicts female stomach scarification independent of polygyny, famine, and social class stratification.
The relationship between scarification of body parts and pathogen prevalence was not evident for males.
These findings, based upon between-society comparisons, suggest that stomach scarification could act as a signal of female mate quality in societies that encounter a high prevalence of pathogens.
Among the ethnic groups in sub-Saharan Africa that traditionally practice scarification are the Gonja, Dagomba, Frafra, Mamprusi, Nanumba, Bali, Tɔfin, Bobo, Montol, Kofyar, Yoruba, and Tiv people of West Africa, and the Dinka, Nuer, Surma, Shilluk, Toposa, Moru, Bondei, Shambaa, Barabaig, and Maasai people of East Africa.
What do you think about this practice?