Scarification, the art of carving decorative scars into the skin, is an ancient practice on the continent of Africa that is now fading from use. The first Europeans to encounter Africans commented upon the patterns of scars that decorated the bodies of many of the people. They learned that scarification was practiced according to strict social rules that dictated the time a scar could be made and the designs used. In African cultures that practiced scarification, scars indicated a person's rank in society and were considered to improve a person's physical beauty.
Each social group defined its own rules about scarification. Typically the scars were made into repeated patterns that covered most of the skin. Among some peoples, children received their first scars upon birth. Among the Nuba of Sudan and the Karo of Ethiopia, women's bodies were scarred at certain times throughout their life. The torso was scarred with certain patterns at about the age of ten. More scars were created under the breasts when a girl reached puberty. A woman's arms, back, and legs received additional scars after the birth of her children. Beginning at age five, young Ga'anda girls, in Nigeria, received their first scars. By the time they reached adulthood, their bodies were covered with eight different patterns. Without a completed scar pattern, called hleeta, Ga'anda women were not considered suitable to marry. Among the Mursi and Bumi of Ethiopia, scars were applied to the faces, arms, and bodies of men as records of personal accomplishments in war or hunting.
Scarification was a painful, expensive process. Because many of the scar patterns were made with raised scars, the wounds had to be irritated with scratching or charcoal, which increased the pain of the process. Scar patterns were made by skilled practitioners. Both men and women subjected themselves to these costly incisions because their societies placed such importance on the display of scar patterns. Scars indicated a person's rank and age in society, but most importantly scars were essential for a person to attract the opposite sex. Without scars a person was often considered ugly, antisocial, cowardly, or poor. Even though many modern-day African governments have banned scarification, many societies continue to practice this ancient tradition.
Gröning, Karl. Body Decoration: A World Survey of Body Art. New York: Vendome Press, 1998.