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Mesoamerican Tribal Modification

You’ve probably heard the phrase “Mesoamerica” before and might have wondered exactly what that covers.  Mesoamerica is a region comprised of a portion of Mexico, Central America, and some of the outlying islands of the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.  This is the area where a great many of the better known pre-Columbian societies existed, including the Olmec, Epi-Olmec, Zapotec, Mayan, Toltec, and Aztec cultures.

 map of the Mesoamerican region

In many of these tribal societies, body modification was an integral part of social life, and tattooing, piercings, and stretching were common.  Other more intense forms of modification existed as well, like the skull stretching practices of the Mayas and the Inca.  When an infant was born, the head would be bound between two flat pieces of wood, the desired effect to elongate its shape.  Tooth modifications such as filing, carving, and even removal were also commonplace in many ancient Mesoamerican civilizations.

 Mesoamerican tooth filing and skull stretching

The Aztec culture was known for ritual piercing, such as bloodletting from the tongue in an effort to appease the gods.  Piercings and stretching of the septum were prevalent here as well, with larger permanent septum piercings denoting societal status.  The Aztec also stretched other piercings, like those of the ears and lower lip, and even depicted several of their tribal deities as being pierced and wearing jewelry.

Across almost all of the Mesoamerican tribes, tattooing was of measured importance too.  Reasons varied widely, from denoting a high social standing, to signifying levels of attainment in war, or marking an individual as a spiritual leader.  Many of the ancient tattoo designs common to these societies depicted spiritually venerated animals, such as the jaguar, eagle, or serpent, all of which are still common tattoo subjects today.

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