The painting of bodies today called bodypainting has its origin in a widespread tradition of primitive tribes. In many cases the painting was only used to decorate bodies but generally it was used to express sorrow, it was a mark of a special tribe or a sign to distinguish tribes. At war bodypainting was used to frighten off living and ghostlike enemies and it was also used in religious dancing to represent or scare away ghosts.
In Africa and Melanesia we find the magical purpose of bodypainting in connection with sorrow (with white clay), in the facial paintings of the Eskimos who were whaling in the Bering Sea, at youth initial ceremonies or in Australia: in connection with obsequies with black, red or yellow colour.
The war paint of the North and South American Indians has beside deterrence also magic power.
Many tribes (e.g. in Indonesia) rub the colour in the soared skin tattoos.
The tattoo has its origin in bodypainting. Probably it has been detected incidentally and used to decorate bodies. These paintings can be found even earlier than rock-paintings.
Beside its meaning as body decoration bodypainting was also a protection against external influences, demons and magic. It was also used as a protection against insects, as camouflage, as label or for medical-hygienic reasons.
We can find the therapeutic character of tattoos already in connection with Frozen Fred (Ötzi) and in Samoa it is known as medicine against rheumatism or against head-ache: in Africa tattoos are supposed to be more effective than medicine.
The so called scar tattoo is the earliest form of bringing colour in and under the skin. As protection against infections wounds were rubbed with additives to ameliorate the healing process. Later scars were treated with soot or with colours made of plant sap. The permanent ripping of the scars retarded the healing and intensified the effect.
Coloured threads were sewed under the skin: that was a characteristic of the Eskimos! It was an early form of the wedding ring to show the belonging of the wife to her husband. Already in 1578 the arctic inquirer Sir Martin Frodisher saw a female Eskimo with such marks.
In India tattoos were used to express deep sorrow. The deeper the sorrow the greater the self-mutilation.
In Papua Neuguinea still today women cut off a finger-joint every time a member of their family dies except the thumb. Some women have totally mutilated hands whereas men don't do this at all!
The physical pain should help people to get over the mental agony. In India even teeth were pulled out.
In Africa some tribes tried to determine the sex of a child during the pregnancy with the help of tattoos and to protect the unborn child against demons.
The tattoos do not only show the belonging to a tribe or clan but also the ritual change from adolescent to adult. Not only the tattoos are important but also the endured pain that can be seen and proved the whole life long.
The social status of the chieftain or the warriors was clearly recognizable. Individual signs on the body were often identical with the symbols on the property of the carrier, for example on pots or weapons. Tattoos depended on tribes and environments and were a part of the carrier's personality.
The first tattoos can be found in 500 BC in Africa, Polynesia and Asia, in the Egyptian culture and in North and South America. With the help of tattoos the Old Egyptians wanted to guarantee the reproduction of the dead on the other side. In 1923 the mummy of a tattooed princess was dated 2000 B.C.
In earlier periods the motives were often abstract, for example symbols like lines, points or simple geometric forms. Later the motives became more and more graphical. Fishermen, for example had dolphin tattoos on their bodies to be protected against shark attacks.
Africa the History of Body-decoration
Climatical conditions determined body-decoration in Africa. Africa can be called the cradle of body-decoration because in nearly every tribe in African regions and landscapes different forms of body-decoration are usual; slightly changed they can be found in our culture today.
Bodypainting, piercing, scarification and tattoos can still be found in African tribes today and have distinct functions. On the one hand there is the decorative function but on the other hand the decoration gives information about status, rank and the membership of people in different groups. They are a part of the personal image, show the development from child to adult and they are often used in ritual initiations as a clear sign of the social development.
In connection with women the form and style of the decoration show if she is married or single, if she is mother or widow. In connection with men the paintings in certain tribes show the successful warriors or hunters. In Central-Sudan a scar pattern with lines and points is scratched in the skin of the whole body to strengthen immunity.
Body decoration is made by older and knowing members of the tribe who know the techniques and who have knowledge about herbal remedies to fasten the healing process. A knowledge that has already been forgotten in our culture.
Forms, techniques, patterns and the intensity of the painting determine certain situations and events. There are also colours that are characteristic for families.
Massai-girls paint the boy of their choice in an erotic dance; they put their legs on his shoulder to mark him. Also emotions like happiness, sorrow and aggression are shown in the bodypainting it's a kind of personal image and self-knowledge.
Body painting has a great importance in the Indian culture. It was the measure of appreciation within a group. It gave information about man's merits in war and hunting. The colour red was the colour of war and a symbol of success, whereas the colour blue was a symbol of difficulties and defeat.