Ancient Examples of Body Modification

Ancient Examples of Body Modification

Body modifications are intentional changes to the human anatomy or physical appearance. Many see the human body as a canvas to decorate and modify. These changes are made for aesthetics, self expression, religious beliefs, culture and to signify social status and identity. While one may think that body modifications are a recent trend, some of them date back centuries. Over the years, body modifications have grown to encompass more extreme forms. Here are five ancient examples of body modifications.

1. Tattoos

The art of tattooing is one that is thousands of years old. The oldest tattooed man, Otzi the Iceman, who was a 5,200-year-old mummy was discovered in 1991 in the Italian-Austrian border. Scientists believe that tattoos on his body were applied for therapeutic purposes, to alleviate joint pain. Tattooing was commonly practiced on women. It is thought that only women who participated in ceremonial activities during the reign of the Egyptian priestess Amunet were tattooed. The practice was carried out exclusively for spiritual purposes. A mummy from the Chinchorro culture in pre-Incan Peru had a mustache tattooed on his upper lip. Tattoos were used to symbolize status, accomplishments and punishments.

2. Scarification 

Scarification is a form of permanent body alteration or body art that involves scratching, etching, burning or superficially cutting patterns, images or words into the skin. It is an ancient practice that was done throughout many different cultures. The practice is an indigenous one with roots in West Africa for ritual purposes and cultural expression. In various cultures, scarification was done as a rite of passage, to demonstrate health and attractiveness to partners, for medical purposes, aesthetics, spirituality and pain endurance.

3. Piercings

Body piercings were done in a wide range of cultures all across the world. It involves a cut or puncture of a part of the body where jewelry or an important implant is placed. An Iraqi stone sculpture from the ninth century BC depicting a man with pierced ears is the earliest example of body piercing discovered. The oldest mummified body which was discovered had earrings which means that body piercings are over 5,200 years old. Nose piercings were practiced from 1,500 BCE. Lip and tongue piercings are historically a part of African cultures. Piercings were used to indicate affiliation to a tribe, status, appear fierce to enemies and to enhance attractiveness.

4. Skin Bleaching 

Skin bleaching or lightening is the process of using chemicals in an effort to lighten or provide an even skin tone by lowering the melanin concentration in the skin. This practice dates back to 200 BCE. Honey with olive oil was used by the ancient Egyptians, Greek and Romans to lighten their skin. To obtain what is often referred to as a ghostly look, the women of the Victorian era used powder and paint. Queen Elizabeth I took arsenic complexion wafers although it was detrimental to health.

5. Plastic Surgery 

Plastic surgery involves the reconstruction or restoration of the body through surgical means. More than 4,000 years ago, surgical methods were used to treat facial injuries. As early as 800 BC, doctors of ancient India performed reconstructive surgery using skin grafts. During the Greco-Roman period, books were written on the methods for reconstructing the lips, ears and nose.  During the Renaissance, there were advances in surgical techniques. In the twentieth century, reconstructive plastic surgery became necessary for many soldiers.  Today, plastic surgery is popular in many parts of the world.    

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