Africa has been considered the cradle of humankind for about as long as Darwin has been floating around the idea of evolution. It wasn’t until 50 years after Darwin made those claims that evidence was found to support him – and today, most know that our collective human ancestry and many of the oldest human cultures originate in Africa.

But not only can we trace our collective bloodlines to the fertile coasts, vast steppes, and harsh deserts of the African continent, but many ancient traditions as well. While the oldest known city-state civilizations originated in and around modern-day Iraq, prehistoric humans spread from Africa across the globe, and many brought with them traditions that may or may not have evolved separately – one such tradition being the indelible marking of human skin. African tattoo culture is vast and complex, with ancient evidence spanning the different cultures of North Africa, and with many traditions and practices of tattooing and scarification remaining in cultures below the Saharan desert.

Oldest Evidence of Tattoos in Africa

Scientists discover the world’s oldest TATTOO on an Egyptian mummy dating back 5,200 years

The oldest known evidence of tattoos in Africa stems from predynastic Egypt, where the mummified remains of a man and woman found in Gebelein bear markings of sheep, bulls, and crooked sticks. Curiously enough, the male had red hair, and was murdered by backstabbing. These people lived over 5,000 years ago and represent the oldest known evidence we have of symbolic tattoos that are more complex than the geometric shapes and one-dimensional markings found on the European Iceman.

Egypt continued to have a history of tattoos, particularly among women in Ancient Egypt, some of which were tattooed for the blessings of fertility, for worship, or to denote their status. Evidence of tattooing among women was particularly rich in one region of Egypt usually reserved for the upper class, indicating that it was a more common practice among those with higher status.

The only identifiable mummy with tattoos in Egypt was that of Amunet, a priestess who bore dot-and-dash tattoos on her abdomen. The style of these tattoos is thought to have originated in ancient Nubia.

Berber Woman in Algeria captured by Marc Garanger (1960)

Evidence of tattooing in the region afterwards is scarce, with most examples surviving either as pottery and figurines, helmets, and sculptures, or as traditions documented in surviving tribes via photography. In North Africa, the tradition of tattooing largely died out as the region faced growing Islamification, with certain exceptions among the nomadic tribes of the region, such as the women of the Berber/Amazigh tribes, who sport complex facial tattoos.

In Islam, tattooing is forbidden as it amounts to self-harm. The practice remains scarce among Amazigh women, and can usually only be seen in elders. Because it is a tradition surviving into the modern day, we know that these tattoos were a form of identification, helping neighboring tribes and families recognize each other, as well as a mark of a woman, traditionally applied during the onset of puberty.

Certain tattoos exist as protection against disease, while others explain a woman’s marital status. Many women recall that, when the tattoos were more common, they were also a sign of beauty.

Tattoos + Dark Skin?

Dark skin is more opaque than lighter skin. As a result, it isn’t just harder to see darker inks due to a lack of contrast, but it’s also harder for tattoo ink in general to be visible. Modern-day inks allow for brilliant, vibrant designs that look good on any level of pigmentation, but in the past, when ink choices and tattooing methods were relatively limited, it’s likely that the practice of making a mark on one’s skin often simply involved foregoing ink and placing a greater emphasis on the mark itself, especially in regions of Africa with much darker skin.

As such, in cultures with far more pigmentation in the skin, the practice of using ink to tattoo oneself is much less common. While examples exist, a much more widespread custom among many dozens of tribes in Sub-Saharan Africa is scarification. Anthropologists consider the practice to have been particularly widespread in the African tribes found in modern day Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Congo, although discrimination in urban regions and resulting feelings of shame is causing the practice to fade out of favor among recent generations.

It’s not possible to tell exactly how ancient this practice really is, but it’s not restricted to Africa. Scarification was also practiced among dark-skinned indigenous cultures in Australia and Melanesia, the region of the planet extending from New Papua Guinea to roughly the top of New Zealand. Among the Maori, from whom we have the word tattoo (tatau, in their language), pigmented tattoos were combined with scarification, and one form of tattooing involved rubbing pigments into open wounds.

Why Scarification Became a Custom

The reasons for ritual scarification are incredibly complex, with dozens of different customs associated to them. The most generalized gist one can offer to help explain the practice is identification, as every tribe that practiced scarification would develop its own set of markings to distinguish a person of one tribe from another.

Social standing would also be conveyed through the scars, which were typically facial, indicating one might be of royal blood. In Papua New Guinea, scarification is a rite of passage for men, who would undergo ritual scarification across vast regions of their body, mimicking the scales of the crocodile in a form of animistic worship.

In West Africa, facial scars and beautification scars are a form of pre-modern makeup as well, and indicators of tribal belonging. Those who refused to be scarified would potentially be exiled and would be excluded from traditional festivities and events. While identification marks were often applied during infancy, marks that celebrate certain stages in life were to be added over time, like a catalogue of one’s life and achievements.

As with other ancient tribes, pain plays a great role. Scarification is arguably even more aggravating to the body and poses a greater risk of infection, because the cuts are often deeper, and in some cultures, they are purposefully irritated with ash to produce thicker, more raised scars.

This pain is a ritual rite of passage into adulthood for both boys and girls, allowing men to bear greater burdens as warriors, and preparing women for the pains of childbirth.

How Scarification Was Performed

The process of scarification involved the actual scarring itself, and the following retardation of wound healing, usually through the insertion of unsterile or aggravating substances, or by repeatedly cutting into healing wounds, and scab removal. Implements used varied from tradition to tradition, with examples including knives, thorns, and bones.

Keloids, which are a rare form of wound healing that involves aggressive and aberrant skin growth, were often desired. While most forms of scarification are geometric, some tribes use scarification to depict more complex shapes, including animals and plants.

Scarification in Modern Day Africa

Scarification has become significantly less common as many members of different African tribes have transitioned into urbanized lifestyles, where their unscarred peers often ridicule them from early childhood. While many elders remember the days when scarification was the norm, they agree that it’s a dying practice. Studies show that, among surveyed tribe members, only 10 percent state they would go through with it again if asked today.