Body Decorations of Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas

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Body Decorations of Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas

The early civilizations of Central and South America paid careful attention to their personal cleanliness and created many different ornaments to beautify the body. Decoration among all Central and South American groups indicated social rank. The Aztecs took this idea very seriously and punished anyone wearing an article of clothing or decoration above his birthright or honorary right with death.

Before adorning themselves, the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas all cleaned themselves thoroughly. Evidence suggests that Mayans used a steam bath to cleanse themselves. Aztecs washed themselves daily, and some bathed twice each day in cold rivers and streams. Aztecs also enjoyed a steam bath in a bathhouse, a domed building heated with a fireplace. The Incas also bathed frequently, and the wealthiest soaked in steaming mineral water piped into their own private bathhouses from hot springs. Once clean, these early Americans adorned themselves in a variety of different ways.

Permanent decorations

Some body decorations were permanent. The Mayans squeezed the skulls of the most privileged infants between two boards to elongate and flatten their heads and tried to promote crossed eyes by hanging a ball from children's bangs in the center of their forehead. Mayan kings and noblemen, or aristocrats, bored holes in their front teeth and inserted decorative pieces of stone, especially green jade and glossy black obsidian, which comes from hardened molten lava. All Mayans filed points on their teeth to make their mouths look more appealing. After marriage, some Mayans applied tattoos to their face and body. Some Aztec women stained their teeth red with the crushed bodies of cochineal insects, a native bug, to make themselves more sexually appealing. Aztec warriors signaled their success with the size and shape of the lip plugs that they inserted into a slit made in their lip. The most successful Aztec warriors inserted plugs shaped like animals and plants, while less skilled warriors inserted plainer shells and simple disks into their lips. Wealthy and honored Inca men earned the nickname orejones, or "big ears," from Spaniards for the large disks made of gold, silver, or wood they inserted into stretched slits in their earlobes.

Body painting

Less permanent decorations, such as body paint, were donned for special occasions to mark the status of the wearer. Mayan warriors painted their faces and bodies with black and red colors, and priests painted themselves blue. Although many Aztec women just emphasized keeping themselves clean, others, such as the most fashion-conscious women and the companions of warriors, smoothed yellow earth or a yellow wax on their faces, dyed their feet, and painted their hands and neck with intricate designs. Inca women did not paint themselves, but, much like the Mayans, Inca warriors and priests used paint on their face, arms, and legs to indicate their status.


The jewelry worn by the Mayan, Aztec, and Inca people was rich in variety and quite beautiful. Without metalworking skills, Mayans made jewelry from many other materials. Mayan men wore nose ornaments, earplugs, and lip plugs made of bone, wood, shells, and stones, including jade, topaz, and obsidian. Necklaces, bracelets, anklets, and headgear were made with jaguar and crocodile teeth, jaguar claws, and feathers. Mayan women and children wore less elaborate necklaces and earrings of similar materials.

Aztecs and Incas perfected metalworking to a great art. Gold and silver jewelry was worn alongside ornaments made of feathers, shells, leather, and stones. Among the Aztecs, laws about which ornaments could be worn were strictly enforced. Only royalty could wear headdresses with gold and quetzal (a bird with brilliant blue-green feathers that reach three feet in length) feathers, for example. The weaving tradition, so important to Incas, helped create beautiful woven headdresses. Inca emperors wore woven hats trimmed with gold and wool tassels or topped with plumes, or showy feathers. Incas also created elaborate feather decorations for men: headbands made into crowns of feathers, collars around the neck, and chest coverings. In addition, wealthy Inca men wore large gold and silver pendants hung on their chests, disks attached to their hair and shoes, and bands around their arms and wrists. Inca women adorned themselves simply with a metal fastening for their cloak called a tupu. The head of their tupu was decorated with paint or silver, gold, or copper bells.


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Bray, Warwick. Everyday Life of the Aztecs. New York: Putnam, 1968.

Cobo, Bernabé. Inca Religion and Customs. Translated and edited by Roland Hamilton. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1990.

Day, Nancy. Your Travel Guide to Ancient Mayan Civilization. Minneapolis, MN: Runestone Press, 2001.

Drew, David. Inca Life. New York: Barron's, 2000.

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Wood, Tim. The Aztecs. New York: Viking, 1992.

Head Flattening