Scarification in Oceania

Stone flake, New South Wales, Australia

Mussel and cyrena shells, Oro Province, Papua New Guinea

[b]Left:[/b] Purchased from Alan Herbert Coltart in 1935; 1935.71.2[br][b]Right:[/b] Purchased from Henry S. Rohu in 1903; 1903.55.122–.127Left: Purchased from Alan Herbert Coltart in 1935; 1935.71.2
Right: Purchased from Henry S. Rohu in 1903; 1903.55.122–.127
Scarring was once practiced widely among Australia's Aboriginal peoples but is now restricted almost entirely to parts of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory (where it is known as bolitj) and even there it is fast disappearing.

In times past, at the age of 16 or 17, both men and women received long cuts using sharp stone tools like this, flaked from special rocks such as jasper. A glowing stick was then pulled from the fire and applied to the wound to cauterize it and stop the bleeding, and to encourage scar formation. Women were generally marked between the breasts and men on the chest, shoulders, and belly. Such marks were once considered a necessity in order to be 're-born' as a fully social being, permitted to fulfil functions such as marrying, trading, playing music, or participating in rituals.

Like the patterns created with traditional Aboriginal body painting, each scar recreated the ancestral landscape on the skin, referring to features such as paintings and cuttings on rock surfaces. Combinations and sizes of scars varied between regional peoples and clans, telling stories of pain, endurance, identity, status, beauty, courage, sorrow or grief. Telepathic-like contact could be made with ancestors by touching the old wounds made by scarification, using the body's memory of an earlier pain to access deeper levels of consciousness.

In Papua New Guinea boys often received scars as part of their initiation rites. The tools used to create the scars varied from region to region. In Oro, a coastal province, sharp-edged shells like those shown here were used. Further east in the inland Sepik region, cuts were made with slivers of bamboo. Sepik mythology asserts that crocodiles once migrated through the region establishing a human population. The cuts made all over a Sepik boy's chest, back, and buttocks during his initation not only tested his strength and self-discipline, but the resulting scars were said to represent the teeth marks of the ancestral crocodile who came to 'eat' or claim the adolescent during the ceremony before transforming him into a man.

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