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Tribal Tattoo History

Updated on December 19, 2016

The history of tattooing belongs to a great many peoples, and as the art traveled across the globe, the styles, methods and meanings were adapted to the various tribes which used the practice of tattooing within their culture.

Presently, the art of the Maori, Polynesian, Samoans and Mesoamerican peoples such as the Aztec are popular and are referred to as 'tribal' in the West, but the practice of tattooing extends to many other tribes, such as the Iban of Borneo, the tribes of the Philippines, and the people of the Mentawai islands, whose art is less well known. What's currently known as tribal scarification has long been common practice amongst the tribes of Africa, where tribes such as the Makonde of Mozambique have changed their practices very little throughout the ages. It's from West Africa that the Adinkra symbols emerged and spread across the globe. Practices such as Yantra Tattooing, as found in Cambodia, also have their roots in spiritual teachings, and their designs and traditional methods are closely related to much of tribal tattooing history.


Traditional Methods

Although tribal design tattoos are now fairly common across the globe, and can be obtained from most tattoo studios, the tribes themselves often observed strict rites and ceremonies surrounding the practice of tattooing. These range from periods of abstinence from food, water, or sexual behaviour, to rites of passage such as dangerous journeys to prove worthiness of a tattoo. Whilst modern day tribal is tattooed using a machine, the tribes often hand-tapped the designs into the skin, or cut the skin and rubbed the ink in. Inks were made of a variety of natural substances local to the tribe ranging from animal bile to ash, and the tattooists themselves were often spiritual leaders of the tribe.


Traditional Tribal Purposes

Tribal tattoos served a range of functions - from magical protection to denoting social status or accomplishments. Wearers often sought to reaffirm their lineage and ancestors, or do honor to their Gods. The location and type of tattoo carried great significance, and was taken very seriously before the actual tattooing was carried out.


African Tattoos

The history of tattooing in Africa dates back thousands of years. Until the recent discovery of Ötzi the Iceman, the oldest known tattoos belonged to the mummy of Amunet, a priestess of the goddess Hathor somewhere between 2160 BC -1994 BC. With her simple parallel lines on her arms, legs, and an elliptical pattern below her navel, Amunet was the oldest glimpse we know had into tattooing in Africa, and the world. The designs found on her mummy, were believed to be symbols of fertility and rejuvenation. No male mummies in Egypt have been found with tattoos, but this does not mean they didn't exist, as male mummies have been found in Libya with tattoos of images relating to sun worship. In the tomb of Seti the first, dating back to around 1300 BC tattoos symbolizing Neith, a fierce goddess who led warriors into battle were also found on men. Very early tattoos portraying Bes, the god of sex and overseer of orgies have also been found on Nubian female mummies dating back to 400 BC.

Henna and Mehndi were popular in ancient India and ancient Egypt and still remain popular today in the Indian subcontinent, Middle East and North Africa.


Tattoo Meanings

The great variety of tribes and peoples of Africa mean that it's hard to state all the reasons for tattoos, however, tribal hierarchy, geographical location (as in the case of the Makonde tribal tattoos from Mozambique), spiritual protection, and rites of passage feature highly as reasons for tattooing throughout Africa's past.



All manner of animals, plants, ancestry and spirits are denoted in African Tattoo history, achieved not only through tattooing, but also through body-painting, cicatrisation and Scarification.

The Adinkra symbols, created by the Akan people of Ghana, and the Gyaman of Cote d'Ivoire in West Africa have become popular in some parts of the West.



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