Scarification: an ‘Ancient’ African Tattoo Culture

Image of a young woman's face (
Image of a young woman’s face (

These days, many of my fellow African brothers and sisters sport tattoos of some European or foreign symbols on their skins. These symbols are usually alien to our cultures, traditions, thinking, and history. So I thought about talking about scarification, which could be called an “ancient” African culture of tattoos.

For starters, Africa has a rich culture of scarification. Many cite HIV, and ugliness as being the reason why they would not do scarification and why the practice has been abandoned. I neither agree nor disagree with them, but I would like to give a history of scarification and why, this is something to be cherished as part of our history, even if it is no longer practiced and/or needed today.

Sculpture of a Mangbetu person, in Congo (this sculpture is exposed at the MET)
Sculpture of a Mangbetu person, in Congo (exposed at the MET)

In the past, a woman or man would have scarification marks that will distinguish her/him from anyone else, tell her/his rank in society, family, clan, and tribe, and symbolize her beauty or strength. In some African tribes, it was like wearing your identity card on your face. True, some may hate that, but this was a mark of pride, not shame. In most African cultures, it was a major aesthetic and cultural component as can be seen on sculptures in museums around the world. Scarification patterns on sculptures are not only marks of beauty, but marks of one’s lineage as well, and in some cases protection against evil spirits. Lastly, in Africa like in Polynesia, scarification is more visible on darker skinned people than say, tattoos.

Diamond and Rectangular patterns on the forehead and temple area on a Tikar mask from Cameroon (exposed at the MET)
Diamond and Rectangular patterns on the forehead and temples of a Tikar mask from Cameroon (exposed at the MET)

What is scarification? Scarification 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 where 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 are sometimes rubbed into the wound for emphasis. These cuts, when healed, form raised scars, known as keloids. The most complicated cicatrisation was probably found in the Congo Basin and neighboring regions, and among the Akan people of West Africa.

Pendant Ivory mask representing Queen Idia, Iyoba of Benin City (16th Century)
Pendant Ivory mask representing Queen Idia, Iyoba of Benin City (16th Century)

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 emphasize social, political, and religious roles. Beautiful and complex designs depend on the artist’s skills but also on a person’s tolerance to pain.  Facial scarification in West Africa was used for identification of ethnic groups, families, individuals but also to express beauty; scars were thought to beautify the body. It was also performed on girls to mark stages of life: puberty, marriage, etc. These marks assisted in making women more attractive to men, as the scars were regarded as appealing to touch as well as to look at, but also as testimony that women could withstand the pain of childbirth. Princesses in many places, including West Cameroon, used to sport amazingly beautiful and intricate marks. The sculpted face of Queen Idia of Benin Kingdom sports two marks on her forehead. For the Karo people of Ethiopiamen scar their chests to represent killing enemies from other tribes; women with scarred torsos and chests are considered particularly sensual and attractive. 

Intricate patterns on a Dogon mask from Mali (exposed at the MET)
Intricate patterns on a Dogon mask from Mali (exposed at the MET)

Today, the art of scarification is changing in Africa, and can mostly be spotted on elders. Mostly because of fears of HIV transmission via blades, and also because of the shame encountered. It is a culture which was once loved and is now despised. Ironically, people in western societies go under the knife to perfect their bodies; they prefer to hide their scars (it is also not on their faces)! Moreover, with the advent of identification cards, the need for scarification has also reduced.

I just wanted us to cherish and not frown upon an ancient culture which had its purpose, and was an integral part of our society, history, and traditions. For more on scarification in African cultures, check out and RandAfricanArt which have amazing images of scarification in Africa, and these articles on the Huffington PostNational Geographic, and Lars Krutak‘s article on the Bétamarribé people of Benin.