Scarification: Let’s trace its evolution

The Maori tribe men, who were found in New Zealand used to etch their whole faces with deep tattoos till the year 1870. Grooves and parallel ridges were formed by creating patterns which were chiseled deep into the skin. The designs so formed resemble the designs of cuts which are formed on woods and trees.

The process was painful, but the raised tattoos so formed made the Maori men attractive to women and also gave them fierce look in the battleground. The pattern of tattoos so formed did not match each other and therefore also helped in establishing identity of the tattoo holder.


Body marking and tattoo inscription is the growing trend in United States and other countries of the western hemisphere of the globe, with more and more people spending time and money for getting the desired shape of tattoo on different areas of their body and as per a survey conducted in 2003 (Harris poll), around 39 % of the total population of 25 to 29 year old individuals have already marked their bodies by one or more tattoos.

The trend has now gone further and the new process in this realm is scarification, which is scarring the body by branding or cutting the skin.

Body modification movement

The origin of scarification could be traced in United States of America (in the state of San Francisco). Starting in the 1980’s, it was accepted in the society as part of the new body modification movement which was spreading across the western countries steadfastly. According to Victoria Pitts, who is professor of sociology in City University located in New York, lesbian and gay cultures accepted it in the initial stage.

Later in 1990s, scarification was adopted and used by the members of the ‘modern primitive’ or the neotribal. According to Pitts, this movement of the neotribals had goals to reenact or revive the indigenous body rituals which were or are found in different countries across the globe which will help them in getting a spiritual and more authentic body experience.

Many see this type of body movement as an urge of individuals who do not want to accommodate in the society in an ordinary way. Pitts further adds that scarification has been able to attain widespread reach across Europe (from Prague to London) and in countries like Australia and United States.

Scarification is done on the body either by strike branding (a method similar to cattle branding) or by using a scalpel and cutting the desired area repeatedly.

Once the area is cleaned and stenciling of the design done, the scarification artist cuts and burns the skin till the right width and depth is reached.

According to Ryan Ouellette, who is a body modifications scientist and also owns the precision body arts in Nashua in New Hampshire, London, the time of the process can vary. It can be completed in a meager 15 minutes time and he also claims to have done pieces that were completed in about 8 hours in two days.

Cultural specification

The body has been used as a canvass for expressing community status, godly or ancestral connection, to mark passage rites and wearing permanent amulet in different parts of the globe since prehistoric times.

Western pacific people, especially the Maori tribe have long history of body and face tattooing. Origin of the word ‘tattoo’ is believed to be in the Polynesian word tattoo. The earliest of tattoo designs consisted of cuts with ash rubbed into them. It many-a-times resulted in blackened scars.

Many of these scarification and tattooing rituals and processes ate extremely painful. The point has also been described by Joseph Campbell in his book ‘Primitive Mythology: The masks of god’, in which he says that the rituals performed during the transformation of an individual from infancy to manhood are very often excruciating ordeals, but many of them have their importance and are highly scared rites.

Vince Hemingson, who is a filmmaker and a writer and has also studied the body modification practices and processes which occurred worldwide says that a tattoo is often very bloody and inscribed after a painful process. He further adds that in most of the gathering and hunting cultures, shedding of blood is used for summoning good and evil spirits and even the god.

Initiation, beauty and status

In the Sepik region of Papua, New Guienia, scarification is considered to be a ritual and initiating rite for the young men. In this particular region, people believe that humans were created by crocodiles.

The buttocks, back and chest of the initiate are sliced by using a bamboo sliver. This is done primarily for testing the initiate’s discipline and strength. The scars which so get formed are said to represent the teeth marks of the crocodile which swallowed the young man during the rites ceremony.

Scarring was much practiced by the aboriginal people of Australia earlier but the practice is now reduced to the areas of Amhem Land, located in the northern territory. Both men and women undergo cuts on shoulders, chest and bellies at the age of of 16 or 17. The scars were prerequisites for the ‘clean skin’ tribe members to have before conducting any kind of trading and participation in traditional song singing and other tribal activities.

The chest scarring of men in Ethiopia’s Karo tribe signifies killed enemies of other tribes. The women of these tribe having scarred chests and torsos are considered more attractive and sensual.

Scarification has been used widely by the dark skinned people who are found in the equitorial regions of the globe. Hemigson points out that the practice of scarification is conducted mostly in cultures where the high melanin content makes the tattoos invisible.

A growing practice

The growth in the practice of scarification can be attributed to several reasons. Pitts says that because people now want to have a bit different society. According to her, the now found industrial consumerist structures are suddenly more interested in primitive societies and that this fascination has centuries old foundation. The ‘exotic ethnic’ ( a romantic concept and idea) was laid in the colonial times, she said.

Cutting edge

Some individuals scarify in order to have a different look. Hemingson says that tattooing is now an old custom and if one wants to set itself apart form the crowd, he should go for scarification or tongue slicing.

The argument given in favor of scarification by Pitts is that since the society is not against expression via appearance ( done by cosmetic surgery, botox and fashion consumption), then body modification through tattooing and scarification are also not out of context and strange.

Ouellette emphasizes that tattooing is, and will always be more popular than scarification as scarification has acquired a social stigma of being totally bizarre.

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