Body modification and ornamentation can be found the world over. It has been used in rites of passage, spiritual rites, and to enhance beauty. The adornment of the body takes on many forms, such as body painting, hair styling, tattooing, scarification (decorative scarring), and piercing. The delivery of each culture’s customs regarding body modification and the symbolism found therein reveals a lot about the people’s philosophy and social standards.

Piercing a hole through the skin and inserting metal, bone, shells, ivory, or glass is a popular type of body adornment. Among many Aboriginal tribes, it served as a rite of passage, a sign of adulthood, and of full membership in a tribe. Roman centurions pierced their nipples to advertise their courage and virility. In ancient Egypt, a pierced navel was a sign of royalty. In ninth-century Iraq, men pierced their ears. Women in Iran had multiple ear piercings over 4000 years ago. In modern times, piercing various parts of the body is commonplace and accepted generally by society.

Ear spools and earplugs are making a comeback in fringe elements of present-day society. These large holes (up to 3cm in diameter) in the ears bear a remarkable resemblance to those worn by the ancient Maya and other ancient South American peoples. Stretching the earlobes up to a dozen centimeters by wearing heavy earrings was thought beautiful in sixteenth-century China as well as in present-day Borneo. Lip piercing defined the social status of Inuit groups in Alaska up until the late nineteenth century. Both men and women wear lip plugs called labrets. Nose rings, located through the side or through the septum of the nose could be found in ancient Mexico and India. Nose rings remain popular in India and Pakistan and are gaining popularity in North America and Europe.

Metal (Nickel) "Allergy": Causes & Treatment


Tattoos can be traced back 4000 years to Egyptians, who made them by puncturing the skin with a sharp needle. Polynesians, Maoris, Maya, Incas, Celts, Danes, Saxons, and Scots also tattooed their bodies to indicate their job, their marital status, or to memorialize battles, journeys, visions, or status as part of a clan or caste. Tattoos developed into an art form that sometimes covered the entire body in eighteenth-century Japan. Samoans got lower body tattoos purely for fashion reasons and anyone who was not tattooed often faced daily criticism! The Maoris tattooed their faces by cutting a pattern into their skin with a bone and placing ink into the cuts. Some cultures forbid tattooing. Jews and Rastafarians are two groups that prohibit markings on the skin.

Scarification is an age-old practice that continues in some parts of Africa. Some women, when they reach puberty, are scarred in elaborate patterns. Small cuts are made on the face that leave permanently raised patterns. These marks are considered very beautiful. Other women get the marks to indicate the number of children.

Introduction to Archaeology


In traditional societies, ritual body modification practices connected people and their bodies to long-established cultural and social positions. In the industrialized West, body modification seems to serve the function of expressing creativity. Body piercing, tattooing, scarification, and even branding are becoming more common in contemporary society. What was once considered “gross” and perverted is now becoming more of an individual fashion statement.


Recent studies on tattoos and body piercings revealed that men tend to get tattooed in a visible place (their arms), while a greater number of women have their tattoos hidden on more private body sites. An equal number of men and women report having mouth and nipple piercings. More women have nose piercings and more men reported genital piercings. As for the reasons why they got tattooed or pierced, men reported that it was for both personal and symbolic reasons, often to identify themselves with a particular group. Women, on the other hand, more often said that their body modifications were to establish personal uniqueness.


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