Body Decorations of African Cultures

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Body Decorations of African Cultures

Africans have ancient traditions for decorating and accessorizing the body in rich and varied ways. Traditionally, many African peoples wore little to cover their bodies, leaving their skin exposed and available for decoration. Africans adorned themselves in four general ways: scarification, body painting, beadwork, and jewelry.

Scarification involves deliberately cutting the skin in decorative patterns that leave permanent scars. Scarification can be in the form of grooves cut down in the skin or welts that stick up above the skin in raised designs. Tribes living in present-day Chad, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Zaire, among other places, practice scarification. Scarred designs mark important moments in a person's life, including puberty and childbirth. Some designs, such as the raised dots across the foreheads of the Shilluk in the Sudan, indicate a person's tribal heritage. Archeologists, people who study the physical remains of past cultures, have uncovered ancient African statues that depict humans with scar patterns similar to those seen on modern tribal members, leading them to believe that the practice is hundreds, if not thousands, of years old.

Body painting is a colorful art used by various African cultures to celebrate, protect, and mourn. Traditionally, body paint was mixed from natural ingredients and smoothed on the skin with fingers, sticks, or grasses. Oil, clay, and chalk were the most common paint ingredients, but the Dinka of southern Sudan have in the past used ash, cattle dung, and urine to make their face paint. Specific colors are used to indicate certain periods in a person's life, such as puberty, courting, and marriage, among other things. Berber women in northern Africa paint their hands and feet with intricate henna designs called siyala for their weddings. (Henna is a reddish powder or paste made from the dried leaves of the henna bush.) But body painting is used not only for special occasions among some African groups. For example, Nuba men between the ages of seventeen and thirty living in southern Sudan wear body paint to indicate their age and apply full body decorations as a kind of daily outfit.

Jewelry of many sorts is worn throughout the African continent. Both women and men wear necklaces, bracelets, anklets, earrings, nose rings, and other jewelry. Jewelry serves as both an ornament to beautify and, in some cases, a protective guard against evil spirits. Ndebele women of Zimbabwe beautify themselves by stretching their necks with tight rings of brass called dzilla. The Berbers of northern Africa wear silver ornaments to protect themselves from illness and evil spirits. Along the Ivory Coast in West Africa, where gold is plentiful, people wear large gold jewelry that serves as both decoration and currency.

African jewelry is made from such readily available items as horsehair, wood, and metals, but the most prized jewelry is made from rare items. Coral necklaces were traditionally prized in the landlocked nation of Nigeria, for example, because coral could only be obtained through trade. Cowry shells were once so coveted that they were used as money in many parts of Africa. Rare items, such as coral and cowry shells, were added to jewelry pieces for the wealthiest members of a tribe.

By the sixteenth century tiny glass beads from Italy had become so popular with Africans that they were as valuable as gold and would sometimes be traded for slaves. Africans of many tribes incorporated these tiny beads into elaborate beaded jewelry, clothing, hats, and footwear. Although the tradition of using shells, ivory, and even fish vertebrae as beads traces its roots back thousands of years, these colorful glass beads soon became the preferred beads among many peoples. Those living in Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa all developed beadwork designs that distinguished their tribes from one another. In some tribes all people wore beadwork and in others only royalty wore beads. Some tribes created certain beaded items to be worn at specific times of life. For example, married Ndebele women of South Africa wear beaded blankets draped over their shoulders, but unmarried women wear beaded aprons. Both men and women wear beadwork, and beadwork has become a sought-after item among tourists to Africa.


Blauer, Ettagale. African Elegance. New York: Rizzoli, 1999.

Kennett, Frances, and Caroline MacDonald-Haig. Ethnic Dress. New York: Facts on File, 1994.

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