The colorful history of body modification

By Carol Woodland, Staff Reporter | Photo Courtesy of

The recent discovery of this skull from Mexico lead many to question what made so many cultures to preform head binding in children.
The recent discovery of this skull from Mexico lead
many to question what made so many cultures to
preform head binding in children.

Body modification today is more popular than ever, and according to a Pew Research Poll in 2010, 23 percent of Americans have a tattoo.

Sarah Egelman, pro­fessor of Religious Studies, explained that tattoos go all the way back to the Iceman, with a 5,200 year old mummy found with tattoos of dots and small x’s on his knee.

“People think of it as sort of this new trend or whatever, but it’s a really, really, really ancient tradition. In fact, the oldest preserved human, the Iceman, was tattooed,” Egelman said.

She said it is thought that tattoos may have been applied to alleviate pain, as archaeo­logical records showed age related degeneration on the bones of the Iceman’s knee.

Egelman said tattoos were popular in ancient Egypt, but for the Egyptians, tattoos were only worn by women and likely served as protec­tion during pregnancy and childbirth.

According to “Tattoos, the Ancient and Mysterious History” at smithstonian. com, Egyptian tattoos were made up of a geometric pat­tern of dots and lines possibly intended to mimic a beaded net, that were applied to the abdomen and thighs of women, and were found on mummies as well.

Tattoos have been per­formed in ancient China, Japan, Peru, Chile, Europe, North America and North Africa, and tattoos have even been found on mummies in Greenland and Siberia, and while differ­ent cultures had their own methods and purposes for tat­tooing, they all likely involved a slow and painful procedure, according to the smithstonian. com article.

Egelman said across the Mediterranean tattooing was also practiced by Romans.

“I do know that some Romans tattooed them­selves religiously as sort of a protection, kind of like amulets,” she said.

After the Roman Empire’s conversion to Christianity, tattoos remained popular despite a biblical law prohibiting any sort of mark­ing upon the body, and that biblical law against tattoos comes from Leviticus, a part of the Bible, which contains laws about dietary restric­tions and even garment mate­rial restrictions, which most Christians no longer follow, Egelman said.

“Christianity really took off in other parts of the Mediterranean world where tattooing was more accept­able and that prohibition doesn’t stand,” Egelman said.

While Judaism and Islam did follow the biblical prohibi­tion, Egelman said that within some sects of Islam there is a history, of temporary henna tattooing for weddings or other celebrations, which is found in other cultures around the world as well.

“I think it’s been more popular around the world for cultural and religious reasons, and medical rea­sons in ancient history than people recognize,” Egelman said.

Margo DeMello, Professor of Anthropology said the simplest way to make a tattoo by hand was to use a sharpened thorn, bone, stick or rock dipped into pigment and poked into the skin.

“Another method is to cut the skin with a sharpened implement and then rub the pigment into the wound,” DeMello said.

In Polynesian culture, their method is to use a carved comb made of shell and dipped in ink, then pounded into the skin using a mallet, she said.

“In Japan, tattoos were (and are) made with a long bamboo device with needles attached to the end; the nee­dles are pushed into the body. In the Arctic, the people there literally sew tattoos into the skin using a needle and thread dipped in ink,” DeMello said.

According to japandaily­ tattoos were used as punishment during the Edo period from the 1600s to 1800s, and are still taboo because people with even minor tattoos are discrimi­nated against and turned away from some businesses in Japan.

She said today’s tattoos are done in a much more ster­ile and safe environment than before, although some tradi­tional techniques are still used.

DeMello said one type of tattooing called “Yantra” which is done by hand in Southeast Asia, remains ever popular despite being a very painful process.

Yantra tattoos are said to be able to protect the wearer from evil and danger because of the mixture of ingredients in the ink and that the monks who apply the tattoos say a special prayer, she said.

“I don’t know what the people in Southeast Asia think of western tattooing, but I do know that lots of people there wear western tattoos,” DeMello said.

DeMello has been studying and writing about tattooing for many years and published a book called “Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Tattoo Community” in 2000.

“Tattooing has become main-stream in the United States since 2000. It was already well on the rise when my book was published, and it continues to get more and more normative in this cul­ture,” DeMello said.

One reason DeMello thinks tattoos are so popular in Albuquerque is because of a link to ancient Rome through Albuquerque’s large Latino population.

“In addition, tattoo­ing has a very, very long history in Christianity. It goes back to the very early Christians who lived in ancient Rome, and who wore tattoos to show their Christian faith. So a lot of Latinos wear Christian tattoos in particular to demonstrate their faith,” DeMello said.

For young people, get­ting a tattoo could be con­sidered a rite of passage, DeMello said.

“In traditional cultures around the world that is how it has commonly been—one receives one’s first tattoo upon reaching sexual maturity or adulthood in many cultures, and in some cultures, without a tattoo you are not marriage­able,” DeMello said.

Jessica Craig, Professor of Anthropology said the Ancient Mayans widely prac­ticed body modification.

She said they used a pro­cess of shaping the head of their babies called “artificial cranial deformation,” or head binding which started not long after birth.

“We suspect that the Maya would do this by tightly binding babies/toddlers to cradle boards. Interestingly, while it was more common among the upper classes, we do see evidence for the prac­tice among the lower classes as well,” Craig said.

She went on to explain that while different classes of people had their heads shaped, the shape itself was based on social class, which would create an easily visible social identification of which class someone belonged.

Donna Rosh, Professor of Anthropology said that cranial deformation was also practiced by some Southeastern and Northwest American tribes and the desired result was to produce a slanted, elongated forehead.

However, for these tribes, cranial deformation was reserved for those with a certain social status.

“Only families with high status practiced it,” said Rosh.

According to “Modern Induced Skull Deformity in Adults” by William Gump, induced skull deformity is still performed now with a method for adults, which is used to “reach differ­ent levels of conscience” or accessing different parts of the brain and is believed to be why Mayans used this method of modification.

Craig said that Mayans also practiced dental modifi­cation and had several meth­ods for modifying their teeth, such as filing them into very sharp points or to drill a small hole in the center of a tooth and inlay it with pieces of jade.

“Certainly the use the jade was associated with social class, as this was the gold of the ancient Maya, so only someone with a degree of wealth could afford this pro­cedure,” Craig said.

For the Ancient Maya body modification offered people the opportunity to create a distinct social identity for themselves, very much like today, Craig said.

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