Scarification and Cicatrisation among African cultures
Young man with facial scarification, Boni
village area, Burkino Faso, West Africa
Scarification on an Ethiopian woman
Pregnant woman from the Karo tribal area with scarification,
Omo Valley, southern Ethiopia
SUDAN: Young Nuba Woman displaying elaborate
scarification depicting the passages of life.
Photo from:
Two Kaleri women with different sets of scarificaiton marks representing their different stages of maturity.

Source: Rufus Camphausen, Return of the Tribal: Celebration of Body Adornment: Piercinf, Tattooing, Scarification,
Body Painting (Rochester: Inner Traditions, 1998).
Picture of woman standing next to a personalized mask that bears the same pattern of

Source: Arnold Rubin, ed. Marks of Civilization: Artistic Transformations of the Human
Body. (Los Angeles: University of California Museum of Cultural History, 1988).
Scarification among African cultures

Among the recurrent formal qualities that can be found in African sculpture, scarification, along with hairstyles, is generally represented
idealistically, implying its importance as a major aesthetic and cultural component. Among the Yoruba there is a "veritable connoisseurship"
(Kerchache.1988.p280) bestowed upon scarification patterns in sculpture. Not only are they perceived as aesthetically pleasing, they are also
functional, for example indicating one's lineage. The criterion of suitability is a significant factor in scarification patterning. Scarification is
appropriate only to the human figure and not to the surface of pottery, although some of the patterns and forms are related.

Scarification, as a cultural activity, is widely performed across Africa. In essence, it is the practice of incising the skin with a sharp instrument,
(such as a knife, glass, stone, or coconut shell) in such a way as to control the shape of the scar tissue on various parts of the body.
Cicatrisation is a special form of scarification, whereby a gash is made in the skin with a sharp instrument, and irritation of the skin caused by
applying caustic plant juices forms permanent blisters. Dark pigments such as ground charcoal or gunpowder are sometimes rubbed into the
wound to provide emphasis. These cuts, when healed, form raised scars, known as keloids. The most complicated cicatrisation was probably
found in the Congo Basin and neighbouring regions, and among the Akan speakers of West Africa.

Scarification is a long and painful process, and a permanent modification of the body, transmitting complex messages about identity and
social status. Permanent body markings emphasise fixed social, political and religious roles. Facial scarification in West Africa is used for
identification of ethnic groups, families, individuals, but also to express personal beauty. It is also performed on girls to mark stages of the life
process, such as puberty, marriage etc. They can assist in making them more attractive to men, as the scars are regarded as appealing to
touch as well as to look at, but also as testimony that women will be able to withstand the pain of childbirth. The Tiv of Nigeria value women
with raised scars as mates because they consider scarified women more sexually demanding and therefore, likely to bear more children. The
Tiv claim the raised scars stay sensitive for many years and they produce erotic sensations in both men and women when touched or stroked.
However, it should be kept in mind that multiple, overlapping meanings tend to underlie different decorations in different societies.

The art of scarification is changing in Africa. In many communities, scarification patterns can now be seen only on the elderly. Ironically,
people from both African and Western societies go under the knife in order to perfect their bodies. In the West, however, people prefer to
hide their scars!

Scarification can be regarded as a boundary marker in terms of life stages, but also as an accepted cultural differentiator between the self
and the other, or the civilised self and the natural self. As Susan Vogel states, "Scarification and other forms of body decoration were
traditionally considered marks of civilisation. They distinguished the civilised, socialised human body from the body in its natural state and
from animals." (Vogel.1986.p.25)

Helen Coleman - November 2002
CLICK HERE to go to my Yombe maternity page to see examples of objects
showing scarification.
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