Members of the Mursi tribe, Ethiopia
Image: Marc Veraart
Teeth sharpening, ear elongations, lip plates, nose studs and giraffe necks – beauty truly lies in the eye of the beholder. But whatever body modifications may be in vogue now, it’s all been done before by tribals around the world, often for hundreds of years. Let’s delve into the fascinating world of piercings and other body art and see some truly amazing pictures.
The Mursi or Murzu are a nomadic cattle herder tribe living in Ethiopia close to the Sudanese border, one of the country’s most isolated regions. The Mursi population is estimated at 6,000 to 10,000. Mursi women are famous for wearing large plates in their lower lips, a sign of endurance, maturity and therefore beauty among the community.
A Mursi woman with an elongated lip but without lip plate:
Another Mursi woman with traditional headgear and lip plate:
How does one eat with this?
Image: Marc Veraart
But not only women elongate body parts as a rite of passage. The Rikbaktsa are an ethnic group that lives in the Amazon rain forest of Brazil’s Mato Grosso region. They are also sometimes called Orelhas de Pau (“Wooden Ears”) because of the men’s custom of wearing wooden disks in the elongated earlobes.
Rikbaktsa boys have their ears pierced during a ritual celebration at the age of 14 or 15 when they are capable of hunting large animals and know about traditional ceremonies. This rite of passage marks the young man’s transition into adulthood and eligibility for marriage with the boy exchanging his child name for his adult name. The Rikbaktsa tribe today has only 909 members and the ritual of ear elongation is not followed any more among the young men.
Rikbaktsa man with wooden ear discs:
The Apatani tribe lives in the Ziro valley in the state of Arunachal Pradesh in India’s north east. Apanti women were considered the most beautiful among the Arunachal tribes; so beautiful, in fact, that they had to make themselves look unattractive as protection from invaders from other tribes. Hence, Apanti women wore large wooden plugs in their noses, a tradition not carried forward by the younger members of the 26,000 people-strong tribe today.
Older Apanti tribal women:
The Kayan are a Tibeto-Burman ethnic minority in Myanmar most famous for the many brass coils that the women wear around their necks, elongating them to unusual proportions. Because of conflicts with the military regime, many Kayan tribes left Myanmar in the late 1980s and early 1990s for Thailand, where the women’s long necks have become tourist attractions.
The brass coils are placed around girls’ necks when they are about five years old. Each coil is then replaced with longer ones. The neck is not actually lengthened as much as the weight of the brass pushes the collar bone down and compresses the rib cage. Once placed, the coils are only removed to replace them with even longer ones.
One has to start early for a giraffe neck:
When asked about the significance of this body modification, Kayan women refer to reasons of cultural identity and beauty. Anthropologists have long speculated about the exact significance of the brass coils and have come up with theories about them making the women more attractive, less attractive or preventing the women from getting bitten by tigers. In recent years, younger women have started removing the coils.
A Kayan woman with traditional neck rings:
Image: Steve Evans
Teeth sharpening is a very painful form of body modification that women of South Asian tribes have undergone for many years. It is considered the ultimate when it comes to beauty. The Bagobo women below of Mindanao, the Philippines eastern most island, must have spent many hours of having her teeth chiseled with a stick and some wood…
Dracula would be proud: