The peoples of Oceania used paint to adorn their bodies for ceremonies and festive occasions. Body paint was more than a way to beautify the body; the designs and colors signified a person's sex, age, social status, and wealth, among other things. Designs had religious, social, and diplomatic meanings. Special designs were worn for festivals honoring the dead, initiation ceremonies for young people to become full members of a group, and peace-making meetings with other groups after battles.
Colors held special meanings for each different culture. Red was the most important color. Many considered it to have magical powers. Some groups painted red ocher clay, from a type of iron ore, on the skin of a sick person, believing that it could help in healing. Men in Papua New Guinea still mark themselves with red coloring because they believe it will make them prosperous.
Charcoal made a black paint, which was often used on men's faces. Clay or chalk made white paint; white was often painted on boys during circumcision ceremonies. Certain clays were wrapped in leaves and burned to intensify their natural colors. To make body paint, ingredients were ground into a powder and mixed with water or tree oils. As the peoples of Oceania encountered more Europeans, they began to use imported synthetic, or man-made, paints instead of their traditional paints because they preferred the brighter colors of the imported paints. By the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Western-style clothing began to dominate fashion in Oceania and body painting traditions began to disappear, except for ceremonial uses.
Gröning, Karl. Body Decoration: A World Survey of Body Art. New York: Vendome Press, 1998.