Part 1 – Coined in 1967 by Fakir Musafar to describe himself and his explorations into body modification, the words “modern primitives” have come to encompass a whole movement of people who have turned to tattooing, piercing, scarification, branding, filing, stretching, and binding for myriad purposes – ranging from the spiritual to the sensual and from performance to meditation. Often the participants and their observers take the word ‘primitive’ at face value and, by doing so, they essentially lay a claim on the past. That implicit link between past and present confers not only a sense of antiquity to body modification but sometimes even sanction and validity. But are there prehistoric precedents for modern primitives? In fact, the archaeological record is replete with examples of body modification that stretch back to the Neandertals.Unfortunately, without mummification, be it intentional or accidental, many forms of body modification will elude direct detection since only in rare circumstances are skin or flesh preserved. However when human bone is fossilized, it may last for tens of thousands of years and well beyond. The earliest evidence for body modification comes from a glacial period cave of the Late Pleistocene, some 45,000 years ago. Although not a type of modification performed much today (with some exceptions), intentional cranial deformation was once widely practiced in many parts of the world (7,500 BC in Ur, 1,300 BC among the nobility of Egypt, or AD 900 to 1100 in Chile’s Mitas Chiribiya culture, as a few examples).
Two of the Neandertal skulls of the Shanidar cave in Iraq show classic signs of intentional deformation: a flattening of the frontal region, in the area of the forehead, and a higher than normal arch in the parietal bones at the roof of the skull, possibly achieved with either flexible bands or simply by pressing. Although we will never be able to say for certain why these individuals had their head shapes altered, we know that in many historically documented examples of head deformation that it was performed for aesthetic reasons – it was simply considered more attractive. One thing we can say with certainty, however, is that these two individuals did not choose their own body modification, opposite to a theme that runs through today’s modern primitive movement of self-discovery. The Neandertal crania were necessarily altered in infancy and they demonstrate a concern for aesthetics that is at odds with increasingly outdated caricatures of these people as brutish. The Shanidar burials have also become well known as the first evidence of the use of burial rites as well as care for the infirm.