Friday, May 1, 2009


After all my research on tattooing, I have stumbled on scarification, something I have never heard of before. Scarification is the cutting or incision in the skin to create scars in a certain pattern. Different tools are used, but scalpels will usually do the job. Some are also whipped with sharp objects to create the wounds. This is an ancient practice which was "the major approach to decorative and symbolic permanent body modification used by dark-skinned peoples on whom tattooing would be ineffective." (Sanders, 8) This practice was originally used by "African tribal groups, scarification is a decorative form primarily intended to indicate one's position in a social structure." (Sanders, 8) Many different cultures have, and do practice scarification. One example is in Papua New Guinea's Sepik region, where they use scarification as an initiation rite  for young men who have reached the age of manhood. The young men are tested on their strength and self-discipline by being sliced with a pointy piece of bamboo. Their culture believes that humans were created by crocodiles, so the scars that result from the scarification are representative of the crocodile that "swallowed" the initiate. On a side note, I remember talking about rites of passages in one of our lectures. We discussed how most cultures have some sort of ritual which make a young man or woman be accepted as an adult. These ritual range from being bar or bat mitzvahed, being forced to gain weight as in some African cultures, or having a Quincenera party. This discussion helps me understand why such a seemingly strange ritual would be used for an initiation rite of passages. These rites are often deeply rooted in history, and therefore might not make much sense to an outsider. The Sepik region is just one of numerous cultures that ritually practice scarification. Other cultures include Australia's Aboriginal culture and Ethiopia's Karo tribe.

Scarification is practiced everywhere, although it is not nearly as popular as tattooing. One interviewee by National Geographic gave a reason behind the practice: ""Tattooing has become hold hat," Hemingson said, "If you want to be on the cutting edge-and want to set yourself apart- you can do tongue splitting or scarification."" (National Geographic). According to National Geographic, scarification in the U.S. began in San Francisco in the mid-1980s as part of a "new body-modification movement". The article says that "it was originally embraced by gay and lesbian subcultures" in San Francisco. In the 1990s, the same practice was embraced by members of a "neotribal, or "modern primitive"" movement. The group wanted to reenact ancient indigenous body modification rituals, in hopes of getting more in touch with the spiritual aspects of their bodies. 

When I first read about scarification, I assumed it was only an ancient practice. I am amazed that it is practiced all over the world, even today. The idea of physically hurting myself in order to create scars is a little horrifying, but I can keep an open mind and consider the fact that these people use it as a way to connect to their culture and the ancient traditions. It is "normal" for them.

1. Sanders, Clinton, and D Angus Vail.
Customizing the Body: The Art of Culture and of Tattooing.
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008.

2. Geynup, Sharon. National Geographic Channel. 2004.
Accessed 15 April 2009. Electronic Document.

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