Scarification centers on a form of permanent body modification that involves the scratching, etching, or burning of the skin. Sometimes, designs, imagery or words are carved into the skin. Scars form as a result of the cutting or branding. In this article, you will learn about some of the ways scarification fits into different cultural groups and what the tradition means to them.
Tribes that live along the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea have embraced the tradition of scarification as a way to mark the moment when a boy becomes a man. For decades, they held a ceremony that required the youth to have cuts made along his back, chest and buttocks. The cuts were placed in elaborate patterns that look like the coarse skin of the crocodile. The tribes believe that during the bloody procedure, the reptilian god would eat his youth and when he was done, a man would be left behind in the end.
However, before the boy can be treated as a man, he must undergo the humiliation that comes with this ritual, which can take weeks to complete. During this time, the boys are called women and are treated as such. It is thought that this is a psychological method of making the soon to be men tougher. The scarification in addition to the taunting are believed to strengthen the physical being of the boy since a great deal of discipline goes into undergoing the ritual. The scarification can include hundreds of cuts. When the scarification process is complete, the raw wounds are cleaned. The pain of the process will linger for days as their bodies continue to heal.
Scarification is also used in other cultures to mean different things and is not always reserved for men. Women in some West African tribes possess scarring on their abdomens to highlight a willingness to become a mother. The ability to withstand the pain of scarring served as a symbol that she was emotionally mature and ready to give birth to a child. Scarification was also used in some groups of Northern Ghana tribes, such as the Dagomba, which was used to treat certain ailments, such as measles, pneumonia and stomach pains. This process was used because some cultures believed that sickness starts in the blood, so cutting the skin meant that they exposed a gateway for powders and potions to travel directly to the bloodstream when applied to a wound.
Scarification is also embraced by various regions throughout Africa. The markings would identify which tribe or ethnicity someone belonged to or associated with. This is seen in Northern Ghana with the following groups of people: the Gonjas, Naumbas, Dagombas, Frafras, and Mamprusis.