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Body ornamentation and modification is older than humankind. We were not the first to use it. So far, Neanderthals are the first that we know of. They used shell beads and feathers for self-decoration. When this may have started is controversial, but Neanderthals were around for at least 400,000 years. These discoveries carry very strong implications. One must have the consciousness of self. There is no need to enhance oneself unless you are self-conscious. Having an inward view is one of those prerequisites for being human, but Neanderthal had it. Early body enhancement was most likely used to differentiate among people. The more extensive reserved for the head of the group, certain marks to delineate a pair-bonded female, a little something for the healer and so on. Once body decoration began, it never stopped. You would be hard put to find a person today who does not wear make-up, has pierced ears, wears an attractive watch, has facial hair, or some form of decoration.
Foot binding, sharpening teeth, scarification, and body piercing are all new compared to the ancient ways of decorating. Remnants of shell containers with pigments still in them have also been associated with both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, with the earliest date of 300,000 years ago and associated with our extinct cousins.
Ochre and other metallic substances were ground up in a container of sorts, then had to be mixed with a substance that would help it liquify and also adhere to the body. This took time and know how. They experimented until they got it right. Pigments were probably ceremonial and used when going off on a hunt, for mourning, religious rites, and celebrations.
Beads apparently entered the mix later on. At first shells with boreholes made by worms were used, but then the ancients learned to drill the holes themselves. Small seashells, snail shells, and ostrich egg shells were used. The eggshells took patience and artistry. Both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens were known to walk distances of up to 40 kilometers to gather up shells for decorative use. They used animal sinew and plant fibers to suspend the beads. This shows problem-solving ability existed before we did.
Tattooing hasn't existed for nearly as long as pigments and beads. The earliest tattoo found on human skin was found on Otzi, the frozen body of a man 5,000 years old that washed out of a glacier in Italy. Archaeologists have found what they think are tattooing tools that date back to the upper paleolithic which could put them as old as a million years. Jailhouse tattoos are made from pen ink or melted plastic mixed with either shampoo or melted styrofoam. It is then applied to a sharp object and repeatedly pressed into the skin. It seems possible that ancient man could have used many substances for ink, including blackened tree sap or ochre for ink and a sharp rock for pricking the skin.
The Maori of New Zealand took to scarification, but its origins are murky. The practice stopped in the 18th century. Foot binding was only made illegal in China in the 20th century, so women still exist there who have been bound. This practice lasted 1,000 years. It was a sign of wealth and beauty. Skull binding has been done in many cultures. It must be done to an infant when the bones are still pliable. The head was wrapped tightly and can either be elongated or with pressure from the top down, widened. It was done to show the importance of the person.
All body art tells a story, from your little one getting her face painted at the fair to scarification. All of it tells you something about the person wearing it. All of us do it, some more dramatically than others. The Ancients developed it to say "This is me." Isn't that why it's still important to us today?