Scarification in Nigeria

Figure of a woman with scarification marks, Yoruba people, Nigeria

Metal razor, possibly Igbo people, Nigeria

Cashew nuts, central Africa

[b]Top:[/b] Donated by the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford in 1966; 1966.5.2[br][b]Middle:[/b] Collected by Winifred Beatrice Yeatman in 1934 and donated by the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in 1942; 1942.13.774[br][b]Bottom:[/b] Donated by Henry Balfour in 1910; 1910.8.58Top: Donated by the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford in 1966; 1966.5.2
Middle: Collected by Winifred Beatrice Yeatman in 1934 and donated by the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in 1942; 1942.13.774
Bottom: Donated by Henry Balfour in 1910; 1910.8.58
In the 19th century many Yoruba 'traditions' were constructed, or spread to places they did not previously exist, as a result of warfare, population displacement caused by slavery, political upheavals, and mixed marriages. The practice of marking through scarification became a channel through which a Yoruba ethnic consciousness could be established.

Scarification (and tattooing) was known among many of the kingdoms and city states of pre-colonial Nigeria. This figurine, probably dating to the early 20th century, demonstrates the amalgamation of some of these historical practices and designs into a new pan-Yoruba style; the sets of three vertical strokes on the cheeks were known in Ekiti and Ijesa, whilst the parallel lines running vertically from armpit to groin were worn by the Ijebu and Egba. The two designs were worn together by Bini women of the Benin Kingdom for whom they were associated with medicinal properties.

The range of Yoruba body markings varied with class, age, gender and fashion. In Oyo, the most populous Yoruba pre-colonial kingdom, the army chief received 201 incisions on his head. Caustic plant juices or irritants such as crushed cashew nuts (shown here) were rubbed in to the cuts to promote the formation of cicatrices and so that their natural medicine would enter his veins and make him fearless and courageous. However, the majority of scarification (known by the Yoruba term kolo) was performed as a statement of citizenship. It was usually done during childhood, or otherwise on those who became naturalised Yoruba later in life (for example through migration or adoption).

Such explicit statements of identity were not without problems. Unlike modern identity devices such as passports, ID cards, and flags, which can be concealed or forged, facial scars are there for all to see and allowed people to distinguish allies from enemies in times of war or unrest. This, combined with social changes narrowing old status divisions and Western-Christian influences, explains why facial scarification has declined in modern-day Nigeria since the absence of such marks reduces the potential for ethnic tension. This is not to say that the wider Yoruba community have lost sight of this aspect of their past. Recently restored to their own state, Edo, the Bini are seeking to reassert their heritage and political ethnicity. Bini men, for example, may be seen wearing Yoruba-style tunics printed with scarification marks in the same position as they once were seen on the body.

The Yoruba were not the only group in Nigeria to practise scarification. Patterns on Igbo door panels are a synthesis of the designs used in male ichi (facial scarification) and female uli (body painting). First encountered by Europeans in the 18th century, ichi marks on the forehead and temples often imitated sunrays or moonbeams and indicated that a man had been initiated into the nobility or social elite. Some 19th-century Igbo masks and sculpted figures have ichi marks, symbolizing the translation of political authority into spiritual authority. Ichi were not comprised of raised keloids but were instead made of long furrows, cut out with a sharp, leaf-bladed knife like that shown here. The procedure took around an hour and half to complete and the inflammation caused could sometimes leave the recipient blind.

Other groups in Nigeria still use scarification for purely aesthetic purposes. A Tiv woman's long scars are positioned to catch the light, emphasising the bone structure of her face and the curves of her body. She accentuates this by rubbing her skin with oils coloured with camwood or henna. New patterns emerge every ten years or so and it is important for both Tiv men and women to keep up with current trends. The only design that is not subject to the whim of fashion is the scar of circles on a woman's belly. Made at puberty this mark is linked with fertility and transforms the young woman into a sacred object.

© 2011 - The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, England