Tattooing in the Aleutian Archipelago

Part 4 – From the Jama-Coaque culture of coastal Ecuador, 500 BC to AD 500, an elite man displays a large turquoise labret (an ornament worn in a perforation of the lip) as well as turquoise studs in his nose. An Etruscan vessel in the shape of a head shows Charun, the demon of death (ca. 400 BC) with multiple ear piercings and a gold earring in the lobe piercing, but also a nose ring with a dangling red stone hanging from the septum (the central fleshy ridge just below the cartilage between the nostrils).

In the Pacific Northwest, indigenous peoples of the Aleutian archipelago were often observed with labrets and nose piercings (as well as tattoos and ear piercings) in the 1700s and early 1800s. The significance of these types of body modification in the various cultures of this archipelago may help to shed some light on their significance in other parts of the world where their meanings are undocumented.

Above is "A Woman of Oonalaska" (sic) (an engraved portrait by John Webber of an Aleut woman with tattooed face and linked nose labret.) From: Cook, James A. (Captain) 1728-1779, A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean.

Above is “A Woman of Oonalaska” (sic) (an engraved portrait by John Webber of an Aleut woman with tattooed face and linked nose labret.) From: Cook, James A. (Captain) 1728-1779, A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean.

Luckily for researchers of body art, explorers and traders who frequented the Aleutian archipelago made observations and notes describing the peoples that they encountered and their practices. Even Captain Cook (who may have coined the word “tattoo” after observing it being practiced in Tahiti, where the word for it is tatau) took particular note of the use of labrets of varying forms and complexity among people in the archipelago in the 1770s. “But the most uncommon and unsightly ornamental fashion, adopted by some of both sexes, is their having the under-lip slit, or cut, quite through, in the direction of the mouth, a little below the swelling part. This incision, which is made even in the sucking children, is often about two inches long … Others have the lower lip only perforated into separate holes; and then the ornament consists of as many distinct shelly studs, whose points are pushed through these holes, and their heads appear within the lip, as another row of teeth immediately under their own.”

Later observers and recent interpreters have noted that the physical stress of infants and children by piercing or scarification is thought to toughen them and increase the likelihood that they will survive to adulthood. The onset of puberty or adulthood was another crucial turning point that occasioned a tattoo or labret. And here we may get at the widespread popularity of the head and face locations – their very public nature. Whether the labrets of the Aleutian archipelago symbolized therapy, adulthood, achievement, or even spiritual control of the body (there is evidence pointing to all of these), their placement on the head and face facilitated their ability to communicate those meanings. Certainly their own interpretations and reasons for body modification are specific to their culture and not necessarily related to those of the Etruscans, but the longstanding popularity of the head and face for modification is underscored by their high visibility.

Modern Primitives Part 5 – Central America


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