10 Ancient Body Modification Practices

From breaking their bones to decorating their skin, ancient body modification could get extreme.

Elaine Davidson Front
By George Gastin [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons

Body modification is the intentional alteration of a person's appearance and is performed for a variety of reasons, for example expressing identity, showing group membership, performing rites of passage, or increasing beauty. Today it is common for people to modify their bodies by getting tattoos, piercings, or plastic surgery.

Some of these practices have ancient origins and have been around for thousands of years. Other practices were common in antiquity, but have come to an end as people today found them too gory. Here are ten ancient practices of body modification that mostly served aesthetic or social purposes, while some were for medical reasons.

10. Trepanation

Elaine Davidson Front
Hieronymus Bosch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Drilling a hole in your skull might not sound like the most pleasant experience, but it's a practice that has been seen around the globe. Trepanation involves either drilling, cutting, or scraping a hole in the cranium to reach the dura mater, the thick membrane surrounding the brain.

Many people survived this procedure and continued living for quite a while, as seen by the healed edge of the holes. It is considered one of the oldest types of surgery and is today called craniotomy.

From the Renaissance it was used to treat epilepsy and mental disorders until the 18th century, and used until the 19th century to treat medical conditions such as head injuries. It is supposedly still carried out occasionally in some parts of Africa, South America, and the South Pacific.

However trepanation can be seen in crania dating back as early as the Paleolithic period. In ancient Peru a ceremonial knife, a tumi, was used for the procedure, the ancient Greeks used a drill, Polynesians used sharpened seashells, and many Europeans used sharp flint or obsidian.

It is uncertain why this procedure was executed in prehistoric times. Some of the crania show evidence of head trauma and so the hole was most likely created to fix the damage. However many crania lack any evidence of injury. The artificial holes may have been made in order to heal mental problems, release spirits, or as a form of ritual.


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