Painted Past: Borneo's Traditional Tattoos

June 18, 2004

In the Indonesian section of the island of Borneo, an adolescent boy of the Ngaju Dayak people embarked on a solo hunting adventure, his first. He ventured into the jungle armed with a blowgun and poison darts. He went in search of wild boar or monkey, favorite foods among his people.

The journey was often perilous. The forests crawl with snakes so venomous that a bite can kill within an hour. The rivers are filled with crocodiles. Neighboring tribes might have taken his head if he had stumbled into their territory.

When he returned home safely with a wild boar draped across his shoulders, he had navigated an important rite of passage: He had crossed the threshold into manhood. To mark his achievement, he was ritually tattooed in the longhouse of his ancestors, first with a full moon on his calves, and later with the image of a water serpent that wound along his upper thigh.

More Than Adornment

Tattooing is one of the world's oldest art forms and has been widely practiced for thousands of years. The oldest tattooed body known to date was discovered in the Austrian Alps in 1991—over 5,000 years old.

For some, tattooing is a bit like clothing, says Webb Keane, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. But among many indigenous cultures, body art is often much more than mere adornment.

Tattooing is also a ritualistic practice with powerful social and spiritual significance. Some tattoos denote an affiliation with spirits, deities, or ancestors—or ward off harm or disease. Others mark the coming of age, signify tribal rank, or distinguish friend from foe. Still others recognize great hunting prowess, weaving skills, or a successful headhunting raid.

"The reason people tattoo are incredibly varied," said John Barker, an anthropologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. "There are different motivations in different locations at different times."

For example, in many Polynesian cultures tattooing is extremely sacred, forging a connection to the ancestors, Barker said. In Papua New Guinea the Maisin women cover their entire faces with exotic curvilinear patterns in a puberty ceremony. Until they are tattooed, they are thought to have "blank" faces, not yet ready for marriage.

Tattooing has also held great significance in head-hunting cultures around the world—from the Naga in India and Bontok Igorot in the Philippines to the Mundurucú of the Brazilian Amazon and the various Dayak peoples of Borneo—said Lars Krutak, an anthropologist at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Dayak Tattoos

Continued on Next Page >>


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