In the time before Christopher Columbus, the rich and fertile lands of South America were inhabited by millions of indigenous people. These natives made up complex civilizations that ranged from hunters and gatherers to farmers and ranchers, with many of the towns and villages maintaining a sophisticated social system.
Many South American natives practiced the art of tattooing, and thanks to archaeologists and historians, we have been able to piece together some useful and intriguing information about the practice and purposes of tattoos amongst early South American civilizations.
The Abipone People – Tattooing for Protection
One group of South American natives that were living in the Gran Chaco region (now Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina) were called the Abipones, and it was discovered that women there were tattooed in their youth, mostly on their faces. These tattoos served to protect the young girls from evil spirits, as well as to mark their passage into womanhood.
When an Abipone girl’s tattoos were completed, she was then ready to be married off to an appropriate suitor. Facial tattoos amongst Abipone women were also thought to purify their bodies, and were seen as a mark of high social status. In fact, the more tattoos that a woman bore, the higher up she was on the social ladder.
The Tattoos of the Amazon
North of the Gran Chaco region, the natives of the Amazon embraced tattoos as a way of life. One group called the Mundurucu wore tattoos on most of their bodies, including the face. These tattoos helped to distinguish them from other tribes in the region, and tattooing was a practice amongst both male and female tribe members. Tattooing began for the Mundurucu when they were young, and much like the Abipone, marked a completed transition from childhood to adulthood.
Another group of Amazonian natives known as the Apiaka practiced tattooing as a means to connect more deeply with their spiritual beliefs, marking their faces with a series of lines covering the nose, mouth, and chin. The Apiaka also used tattoos to mark those that had preformed bravely in battle. The more extensive the tattoos, the more impressive and terrifying the warrior’s history, as each tattoo was meant to represent an enemy that had been killed and eaten in battle. The tattoos not only bragged of daring deeds, but served to protect the warrior from the spirit of those that they had killed coming back to avenge their death.
The Preserved Tattoos of Mummies
On the coast of northern Chile and southern Peru, a people known as the Chinchorro lived a mostly peaceful and idle lifestyle, with their main means of supporting themselves being the fish that they caught from the ocean near their homes. The Chinchorro only survived from 7000 BC to about 1100 BC, and never became one of the more complex South American civilizations, as they didn’t adopt the more sustainable practices of agriculture and the domestication of livestock. They did practice mummification, however, and it is thanks to this earliest known use of such a practice that we know that the Chinchorro practiced tattooing.
Archaeologists discovered almost 300 Chinchorro mummies, and noted that many of them bore tattoos. The mummies have been dated to be from 5050 BC to about 1800 BC, and one male money that has proved to be over 7,000 years old bore a tattooed mustache on his upper lip.
Another tribe from the Southern coast of Peru, the Nazca, lived from 100 BC to around 800 BC, and thrived thanks to their use of agriculture. The Nazca also adopted more artistic pursuits, and were known for their beautiful and intricate ceramic containers and figurines, as well as their well-made and durable clothing.
The Nazca also practiced mummification, and scientists have discovered from the mummified remains of the Nazca people that they also practiced tattooing. Mummies dating from about 200 BC have been found with tattoos on the face, fingers, hands, and torso. It is believed that the torso tattooing might have been used for a spiritual and even medicinal purpose, as ceramic figurines with similar markings were found in areas that are thought to have been a part of the Nazca labor and childbirth practice. The mummies and the matching figurines all bore marks on the thighs, abdomen, and vulva. This has lead archeologists to believe that tattooing may have been thought to help to protect the Nazca women from pain and death during childbirth.
In northern Peru, the Moche people thrived in the same time period as the Nazca, and were also known to have adopted agriculture, as well as an advanced technique for creating pottery and metalwork. The Moche also practiced tattooing and mummification. A perfectly preserved mummy was found in a tomb in the Huaca Cao Viejo pyramid in the Moche valley with elaborate tattoos.
High Social Status
Believed to have originated from around 450 BC, this mummy was found with an array of jewelry, weapons, and ceremonial objects. This lead archaeologists to believe that this person had been one of high social status. In fact, a young servant girl was also found buried with the mummy, and was believed to have been a sacrifice for the safe passage into the afterlife for this high-ranking member of the Moche civilization.
The female mummy has come to be known as the Lady of Cao, and she was found wearing gold armlets and nose ring, as well as multiple intricate tattoos on both of her arms, ankles, and feet. The tattoos appeared to have been made with charcoal pigment, and the designs were mostly geometric, although images of snakes and spiders were also found.
‘Sewing’ Tattoos – The Chimu Civilisation
Before being conquered by the Incas, the Chimu civilization lived on the northern coast of Peru from about 850 BC until 1470 BC, and by the end of their reign, had grown to a population of over 30,000 people. The Chimu were a highly-developed tribe with an elite ruling class. Thanks to evidence found during archeological digs, it has been found that the Chimu worshipped the moon, made highly-developed pottery and clothing, practiced agriculture, and also raised both lamas and alpacas.
Mummies have been found that indicate that both Chimu men and women were tattooed, most likely using the “stitching” method, which has also been found amongst some Artic native tribes. This method requires needles made from fish bones or parrot quills being dipped in pigment, and then being sewn through the skin to create the desired tattoo design.
It is believed that the Chimu women that were the tattoo artists amongst the tribe, and that the pigment used in their tattooing practice was made from the juice of local fruit. Some of the most common tattoo designs were of animals, gods, and the most significant aspects of nature found in the area. Archaeologists believe that the Chimu used tattoos to help their people move on to the afterlife, as the same designs have been found on golden burial gloves.
Medicinal Tattoos of the Chancay
During the same time, another civilization known as the Chancay also flourished on the central coast of Peru, and like the Chimu, were also conquered by the Incas. The Chancay were known to practice a high level of agriculture and pottery, and also traded goods with other tribes. Mummification was also a practice of the Chancay, and in 2008, the mummy of a young man was found to be buried with a figure dressed in the same clothes, bearing gifts of slingshots and corn for the gods of the afterlife.
This mummy is thought to be about 1,000 years old, and bears tattoos on his right knee. Made up of linear geometric designs, it is thought that the tattoos were not decorative, but used instead for a medicinal purpose, possibly to relieve pain or heal an injury.
Tattoos for All Purposes
Although the practice of tattooing in South American civilizations seemed to decline with the rise of the Incas, it continued to be common in the Amazonian region, and was used for a variety of reasons, including spiritual and medical protection, strength and bravery in battle, and to celebrate and mark the transition from childhood to adulthood.
In Mexico, historical evidence has pointed to the fact that the Maya and Aztec civilizations also practiced the art of tattooing, usually as parts of religious rituals, valor in battle, or as a totem to a person’s tribe spirit.
The Aztecs used tattoos to show the bravery of their warriors, as well as tell the story of their heroic deeds during times of war, without having to use any words at all. Tattoos helped to identify the rank of each warrior — the more tattoos that covered the body, the more fearless the man that bore them.
Mayans also used tattoos to commemorate wartime acts of bravery, and some warriors were found to have tattoos on their chest, stomach, and thighs. In early Mayan civilization, tattoos were even placed on the face to indicate heroic deeds, but at some point in the development of their culture, Mayans had begun to use facial tattooing as a form of punishment for thieves.
Beautiful Tattoos – or Satanic Works?
Both men and women were tattooed in the Mayan culture, although women were thought to have tattoos more for increased beauty than for any special purpose, and their tattoos were limited to only the waist and up, not covering other parts of the body. The Maya natives also pierced parts of their body as a means of decoration, with both men and women having rings through their noses. Mayan women also pierced their ears as an added means of beautification.
When Hernando Cortez and his conquistadors arrived there in 1519, they were shocked to find that the natives appeared to worship devils, and even permanently marked the terrifying images of these “devils” on their bodies. The Spaniards had never encountered tattooing before, and believed it to be the work of Satan.
One 16th century historian by the name of Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdez wrote a complete account of the conquest of Mexico, and made specific mentions of Mayan tattoos. He stated that the natives were “imprinted on their bodies with the images of demons, held and perpetuated in black color for as long as they live, by piercing the flesh and the skin, and fixing in it the cursed figure.”
Destroying the Culture
Once the Spaniards and missionaries began to interact with the natives, it was discovered that many of the tattoos told tales of greatness on the field of battle, and that many of the older warriors were completely covered in tattoos in images of their successful warfare.
Since the natives were believed to be worshippers of the devil, Jesuit missionaries were brought in to attempt to convert them to the Catholic religion, and many of them noted that the Mayans covered their body with frightening images of toads, snakes, and alligators.
Missionaries were instructed by the Spanish government to eradicate all signs of any possible Satan worshipping, including totems, figurines, and of course, tattoos. One Franciscan friar by the name of Diego de Landa was given the task of traveling the area to convert as many natives to Christianity as he could, by any means necessary. From 1549 to 1562, de Landa burned temples and tombs, idols and statues, and an untold number of manuscripts holding the history, art, spirituality, medical practices, and science of the Maya people.
De Landa’s Devastating Legacy
The friar was also responsible for torturing over 4,500 suspected devil worshippers to gain a confession from them. It was recorded by historians that at least 30 people committed suicide to avoid de Landa’s torturous ways, as well was having to give up the only way of life that they had ever known. This was devastating to the Mayans, and many believe that it was the reason that they were finally conquered by the Spanish.
We know that tattooing was an integral part of the culture of the Mayans, but thanks to the eradication of the practice, as well as almost every piece of evidence and documentation regarding the meanings and purposes of Mayan tattoos, most of the significance of tattooing in that civilization has never been discovered, and is now lost to us all.
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