When it was about more than butterflies on boobs: the tribal roots of body painting

Body painting

We can hardly blame you if you saw the words body painting and immediately rolled your eyes. In the past ten or so years we’ve seen body painting become a cheesy relic of what it once was, a form of expression that now seems to have been completely overtaken by perverts. However! Not only is the true art of body painting alive and well today with artists creating masterpieces using the human body as a canvas, but body painting is also something that’s been in use for thousands of years and is integral to many tribes.

Henna hands

Having Henna or Mendhi applied to a woman’s hands (and feet, in some cases) before her wedding day is a beautiful tradition that is alive and well today for people of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and North African descent. Use of Henna can be traced all the way back to 700 AD in India and the Indian sub-continent, and seems to have been in use long before that in Egypt, where mummies with hair and nails stained the reddish-brown of Henna have been uncovered.

Everyday body painting in Sudan

In southern Sudan, the men of the Nuba tribe who are between the ages of 17 and 30 adorn themselves with body paint and other body ecorations every day as an indication of their age. These men spend hours painting themselves with complex and intricate designs. They use the art of body painting as a reflection of the Nuba peoples’ belief in the importance and power of strength and beauty.

Body Painting

The Indigenous Australian storytelling culture

Body painting, along with a wide variety of other forms of visual expression, have long been an integral part of the storytelling culture of Indigenous tribes in Australia. These tribes believe that when designs and religious images are applied to the body, it transforms the body from profane to sacred and evokes the presence of a supernatural power. Through these designs and images, the body works to transmit the myths and legends of the culture, telling stories without words. In addition to telling stories, these images can be used to convey grief, joy, pain, and even a declaration of war. Anthropologists call this living art.

How face painting has made us think differently of Neanderthals

Neanderthals have long been the butt of jokes, most of them unfunny. But with the recent discovery of makeup pots and application tools from over 50,000 years ago, researchers have concluded that Neanderthals most likely painted their faces for decorative and ceremonial purposes. This effectively dismantles the idea that Neanderthals were some sort of half-wits, showing that this human subspecies were, in fact, capable of symbolic thinking.

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