Western scarification (Euler's identity)

Scarifying (also scarification modification) involves scratching, etching, burning / branding, or superficially cutting designs, pictures, or words into the skin as a permanent body modification. The body modification can take roughly 6–12 months to heal.[1] In the process of body scarification, scars are purposely formed by cutting or branding the skin by various methods (sometimes using further sequential aggravating wound-healing methods at timed intervals, like irritation). Scarification is sometimes called cicatrization (from the French equivalent).[2]


Maroon woman in Surinam with ritual scarification (1952)

Within anthropology, the study of the body as a boundary has been long debated.[1] In 1909, Van Gennep described bodily transformations, including tattooing, scarification, and painting, as rites of passage.[3] In 1963, Levi-Strauss described the body as a surface waiting for the imprintation of culture.[4] Turner (1980) first used the term "social skin" in his detailed discussion of how Kayapo culture was constructed and expressed through individual bodies.[5] Inscribed skin highlights an issue that has been central to anthropology since its inception: the question of boundaries between the individual and society, between societies, and between representation and experiences.[1]

There are currently four competing hypotheses behind the behavior ecology of scarification: (1) a rite of passage, (2) a hardening/trauma procedure, (3) a nonadaptive sexually selected character, or (4) an adaptive pathogen-driven sexually selected character.[6] There are also aesthetic, religious, and social reasons for scarification. For example, scarification has been widely used by many West African tribes to mark milestone stages in both men and women's lives, such as puberty and marriage. Scarring on the abdomen of women may be used to denote a willingness to be a mother, as the woman's ability to tolerate the pain of scarring is an indication of her emotional maturity and readiness to give birth.[7] It is also used to transmit complex messages about identity; such permanent body markings may emphasize fixed social, political, and religious roles.[2] Young boys in the Chambri tribe of Papua New Guinea undergo scarification resembling crocodile scales to mark their transition into manhood, a ritual which stems from the belief that humans evolved from crocodiles.[8] Tattoos, scars, brands, and piercings, when voluntarily acquired, are ways of showing a person's autobiography on the surface of the body to the world.[1]

Tribe members unwilling to participate in scarification were generally not included in the group's activities, and are often shunned from their society.[9] According to anthropologist Grace Harris, group members lacking the normal characteristics consistent of the group are not considered as acquiring the full standings as agents in their society, they would also lack the capacity for meaningful behavior, such as greeting, commanding, and stating.[10] Therefore, scarification can transform partial tribe members into normal states entirely accepted by the group. Scarification is a form of language not readily expressed except through extensive and intricate greetings, and gives the ability to communicate fully which is a key element for being considered as a normal member of the group.[10]

An Aeta man from Luzon, Philippines with scarified tattoos made with dash-like incisions by a small knife (c.1885)
  • Scarification is usually more visible on darker skinned people than tattoos.[7]
  • Endorphins can be released in the scarification process that can induce a euphoric state.
  • A main reason for scarification is showing endurance of pain. With young men, the endurance of the pain of scarring exhibits strength and discipline, especially in tribes where males have roles as hunters and warriors. A young man who has already experienced the feeling of torn or cut flesh is considered less likely to fear the teeth of a wild animal or the tip of an enemy’s spear.[11]
  • In Ethiopia, Suri men scar their bodies to show that they have killed someone from an enemy tribe; the Mursi practice scarification for largely aesthetic reasons in order to attract the opposite sex and enhance the tactile experience of sex.[12] The Ekoi of Nigeria believe that the scars serve as money on their way to the afterlife.
  • For the Nuba tribe of Sudan, scars can serve a medicinal purpose; scars above the eyes are believed to improve eyesight, and scars on the temples help to relieve headaches.[13] Some groups in Northern Ghana like the Dagomba use scarification to treat certain ailments such as convulsions, measles, pneumonia, stomach pains, and so on. It is believed that these sicknesses originate in the blood, so the skin is cut by a traditional healer and powder or potion is then applied to the wound so that it may travel directly to the bloodstream.[14]
  • Scarification can also help change status from victim to survivor. These individuals pass through various kinds of ritual death and rebirth, and redefine the relationship between self and society through the skin.[1]
  • Most people in certain regions of Africa who have "markings" can be identified as belonging to a specific tribe or ethnic group. Some of the tribes in Northern Ghana who use the markings are the Gonjas, Nanumbas, Dagombas, Frafras and Mamprusis.[14]

Among the ethnic groups in sub-Saharan Africa that traditionally practice scarification are the Gonja, Dagomba, Frafra, Mamprusi, Nanumba, Bali, Tɔfin, Bobo, Montol, Kofyar, Yoruba, and Tiv people of West Africa, and the Dinka, Nuer, Surma, Shilluk, Toposa, Moru, Bondei, Shambaa, Barabaig, and Maasai people of East Africa.[15]


Scarification is not a precise practice; variables, such as skin type, cut depth, and how the wound is treated while healing, make the outcome unpredictable. A method that works on one person may not work on another. The scars tend to spread as they heal, so outcome design is usually simple, the details being lost during healing.


Modern strike branding instruments

Human branding is one type of scarification. It is similar in nature to livestock branding.

Strike branding
Similar to the process used to brand livestock,[9] a piece of metal is heated and pressed onto the skin for the brand. Historically it was used to claim ownership of slaves or to punish criminals, but as a form of body art, strike branding is less preferable to other types because it is not precise and tends to spread greatly on healing, and is not advisable for curved areas of the body. More successful is the multi-strike brand; it is done piece-by-piece rather than all at once. For example, to get a V-shaped brand, two lines would be burned separately by a straight piece of metal, rather than by a V-shaped piece of metal.
Cautery branding
This is a less common form of branding. It uses a thermal cautery tool[9] with a heated wire tip to cause the burns.
Laser branding
"Laser" branding is a marketing term coined by Steve Haworth, who pioneered its use in body modification. The technical term is "electrosurgical branding". Though it is technically possible to use a medical laser for scarification, this term refers not an actual laser, but rather an electrosurgical unit which uses electricity to cut and cauterize the skin, similar to the way an arc welder works. Electric sparks jump from the hand-held pen of the device to the skin, vaporizing it. This is a more precise form of scarification, because it is possible to greatly regulate the depth and nature of the damage being done to the skin. Whereas with traditional direct branding, heat is transferred to the tissues surrounding the brand, burning and damaging them, electrosurgery branding vaporizes the skin so precisely and so quickly that little to no heat or damage to the surrounding skin is caused. This means that pain and healing time after the scarification is greatly lessened.
Cold branding
This rare method of branding is the same thing as strike branding, except that the metal branding tool is subjected to extreme cold (such as liquid nitrogen) rather than extreme heat. This method will cause the hair on the brand to grow back white and will not cause keloiding. This process is also used in livestock and called freeze branding in that context.


Sepik River initiation – crocodile scarification. Korogo village, Papua New Guinea, 1975. Franz Luthi

Cutting of the skin for cosmetic purposes is not to be confused with self-harm, which is also referred to by the euphemism "cutting". There may be cases of self-mutilation and self-scarification for non-cosmetic reasons. Lines are cut with surgical blades. Techniques include:

Ink rubbing
Tattoo ink (or another sterile coloring agent) is rubbed into a fresh cut to add color to the scar. Most of the ink remains in the skin as the cut heals, and will have the same basic effect as a tattoo.
Skin removal/skinning
Cutting in single lines produces relatively thin scars, and skin removal is a way to get a larger area of scar tissue. The outlines of the area of skin to be removed will be cut, and then the skin to be removed will be peeled away. Scars from this method often have an inconsistent texture, although this relies heavily on the experience of the artist and aftercare of the wound.
This method is uncommon in the West, but has traditionally been used in Africa. A cut is made diagonally and an inert material such as clay or ash is packed into the wound; massive hypertrophic scars are formed during healing as the wound pushes out the substance that had been inserted into the wound. Cigar ash is used in the United States for more raised and purple scars; people may also use ashes of deceased persons.[citation needed]
Similar in appearance to flesh removal this method of scarification relies on using a sterile surgical scalpel to cut into the skin. Where a larger area is required to be scarred, the cut is made with a hatching technique similar to the sketching technique. This method is easier to perform than flesh removal and can be done with one hand which could be beneficial in some situations. While this technique can take longer for larger pieces it is useful for smaller, more detailed designs and enables shading to be used.


Scars can be formed by removing layers of skin through abrasion. This can be achieved using an inkless tattooing device, or any object that can remove skin through friction (such as sandpaper).

Chemical scarification uses corrosive chemicals to remove skin and induce scarring. The effects of this method are typically similar to other, simpler forms of scarification; as a result there has been little research undertaken on this method.


Scarification produces harm and trauma to the skin; thus it is considered to be unsafe by many. Infection is a concern. Not only do the materials for inducing the wounds need to be sanitary, but the wound needs to be kept clean, using antibacterial solutions or soaps often, and having good hygiene in general. It is not uncommon, especially if the wound is being irritated, for a local infection to develop around the wound. The scarification worker needs to have detailed knowledge of the anatomy of human skin, in order to prevent tools from cutting too deep, burning too hot, or burning for too long. Scarification is not nearly as popular as tattooing, so it is harder to find workers experienced in scarification.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Schildkrout, Enid (2004-06-11). "Inscribing the Body". Annual Review of Anthropology. 33: 320. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.33.070203.143947.
  2. ^ a b "Scarification and Cicatrisation Among African Cultures". Rand African Art. Retrieved 2012-10-17.
  3. ^ Van Gennep, A (1909). Les Rites De Passage. Paris: E. Nourry.
  4. ^ Levi-Strauss, C (1963). Structural Anthropology. New York: Basic Books.
  5. ^ Turner, TS (1980). Not Work Alone: A Cross-Cultural View of Activities Superfluous to Survival. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage. pp. 112–140.
  6. ^ Ludvico; Kurland (1995). "Symbolic or Not-so-Symbolic Wounds: The Behavioral Ecology of Human Scarification". Ethology and Sociobiology. 16 (2): 155–172. doi:10.1016/0162-3095(94)00075-i.
  7. ^ a b "African Scarification to Decorate and Beautify the Body". Gallery Ezakwantu. Archived from the original on 2012-10-20. Retrieved 2012-10-17.
  8. ^ Roman, Jorge (22 August 2018). "African Scarification". JAMA Dermatol. 152 (12): 1353. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2016.0086. PMID 27973657.
  9. ^ a b c Guynup, Sharon. "Scarification: Ancient Body Art Leaving New Marks". National Geographic.
  10. ^ a b Harris, Grace Gredys (1989). "Concepts of Individual, Self, and Person in Description Analysis". American Anthropologist. 91 (3): 599–612. doi:10.1525/aa.1989.91.3.02a00040.
  11. ^ Roman, Jorge (22 August 2018). "African Scarification". JAMA Dermatol. 152 (12): 1353. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2016.0086. PMID 27973657.
  12. ^ Roman, Jorge (22 August 2018). "African Scarification". JAMA Dermatol. 152 (12): 1353. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2016.0086. PMID 27973657.
  13. ^ Roman, Jorge (22 August 2018). "African Scarification". JAMA Dermatol. 152 (12): 1353. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2016.0086. PMID 27973657.
  14. ^ a b "Scarification: Leaving your Mark". Travel Blog. Retrieved 2012-10-17.
  15. ^ Garve, Roland; Garve, Miriam; Türp, Jens; Fobil, Julius; Meyer, Christian (2017). "Scarification in Sub‐Saharan Africa: Social Skin, Remedy and Medical Import". Tropical Medicine & International Health. 22 (6): 708–715. doi:10.1111/tmi.12878. PMID 28380287. S2CID 8164849.

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