What could wild warrior chiefs possibly have in common with film star Angelina Jolie?

Initially, you might think that this is a trick question. However, the answer lies skin deep. They have both succumbed to ancient practices, known to satisfy those who decide to undergo permanent body alteration.

In 1991, archaeologists found a 5 000-year-old frozen corpse in the mountains between Austria and Italy. The corpse had over 30 tattoos and both its ears were pierced. Permanent alterations such as these are older and far more culturally significant than most would think. Perdeby investigates where and when these sometimes controversial practices began.

Tattoos claims that the word “tattoo” originates from the Tahitian word “tatou”, which literally means “to mark”. According to, Tahitian women were tattooed from a very early age. The first markings indicated that they were allowed to accept food from people other than their mothers. Black patches were added to their buttocks at puberty and as they grew older their markings became more elaborate.

The Celts were nomads who eventually ended up in the northern parts of Great Britain. Despite being branded pagans and witches by Christians, they regarded themselves as spiritual people. Their tattoos featured multiple intricate lines, criss-crossing at predetermined locations. These tattoos were symbolic representations of the spiritual connection between all living things on earth. There were also warrior tribes, such as the Maoris of New Zealand, who marked their faces to indicate their strength and status within their tribes.

Today, tattoos are seen by older, more conservative generations as a sinful tainting of the body. argues that tattoos are of an evil nature and further states, “They are strongly connected with channels into spiritual and demonic possession.”

However, people who have tattoos have different opinions. Myfanwy Gibson, an MSc Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences student at Wits, boasts a Celtic tribal-style dragon inked on her back. “My tattoo signifies change and beauty in change. It serves as a reminder that life will never again be as it was before. The simplicity of the stark colour contrast and the intricacy of the design also serve to remind me that there is a balance between the complicated and the simple. The fact that it’s on my back indicates that the past is behind me and it also saves me from getting bored of it too quickly,” Gibson says.


According to, the idea of piercing one’s skin started among southern American tribes such as the Mayans and Aztecs. However, at more or less the same time in history, accounts were given of tribes around various parts of Africa who also pierced themselves.

All of these tribes practised a form of piercing known as “stretching”. This involves the placement of a piece of wood, tusk or bone into a pierced hole with the idea of stretching it. To make the hole larger, individuals gradually insert larger and larger objects into the piercing. For these tribes, it symbolises an idealistic beauty obtained by changing one’s physical appearance.

Other ancient societies were more interested in the practical value of piercings. Men of ancient Rome pierced their nipples as a sign of strength and virility. Julius Caesar himself had pierced nipples, indicating unity with his men. Ancient Egyptians used piercings as an indication of wealth and social standing: naval piercings were reserved for pharaohs only. Centuries later, wealthy men and women of the Renaissance era wore pearls in their ears as an indication of their wealth. Sailors at the time thought that pierced ears improved their eyesight. They also believed that if they washed up on foreign shores, the jewels in their ears would serve as payment for a proper burial.

Piercings in modern Western culture only became popular in the 1960s, when hippies went soul-searching in India and brought the tradition of nose piercings (and the idea of piercing body parts other than the ears) back to the USA.

Plastic surgery reports that the immense growth of the plastic surgery industry is mostly attributed to wars. During the First World War, plastic surgery grew as a science owing to the fact that many soldiers sustained injuries to their faces, which then needed to be reconstructed. In an attempt to restore the functionality of their faces, surgeons developed what is now known as reconstructive surgery. However, many soldiers still had problems integrating into society as a result of their functional, yet still deformed facial injuries. Because of this, cosmetic surgery emerged. Botox, the simplest and cheapest form of cosmetic surgery, surfaced during the Second World War. As a neurotoxin which affects the central nervous system, Botox is actually extremely dangerous when absorbed into the digestive system.

According to, the same chemicals as found in Botox were allegedly used in a plot to assassinate Japanese military officials. The original plan was for the Allies to use Chinese prostitutes as spies. They would issue the prostitutes with capsules containing the chemicals so that they could slip the chemicals into the military officials’ food and drink. The chemicals would have paralysed their entire bodies, eventually leading to a total shutdown of their organs. However, these plans were scrapped and the Allies decided to use nuclear weapons instead.

In spite of this, plastic surgery researchers in western Europe and the USA discovered that they could inject the chemicals into a person’s skin without killing them. The desired effect is to reduce wrinkles but it can also be used to treat excessive sweating. However, headaches, bruising, swelling, bleeding, respiratory infection, temporary muscle drooping, skin infection, pain in the neck or back, and fever are possible side effects of modern Botox.

The world of body alterations has grown from primitive and sacred traditions to a form of self-expression. Whether one wishes to stand out or fit in, there’s a type of body modification for almost everyone.

Image: Hendro van der Merwe

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