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The History of Jewellery: Ethnic Tribal Jewelry



Primitive & Ritualistic Ceremonial Jewellery


Article Copyright © 2012 AllAboutGemstones.com

The use, and importance of jewelry in primitive tribal, or pagan ritualism, and jewelry's use as a tool for both beautification/decoration, and body modification/deformation dates back thousands of years. Although body modification was routinely practiced in the ancient Pre-Columbian and Indus Valley cultures, this type of beautification is still in practice today in Africa, South America, Southeast Asia, and even within sub-cultures in western societies.



In many primitive cultures, jewelry, body ornamentation and body modification has been used to exaggerate sexual dimorphism, accentuating the systematic differences between the sexes. Jewelry is also used for pagan rituals, to honor a particular deity, or as an offering in sacrificial ceremonies; though sometimes, jewelry is used for nothing more that simple beautification.


Primitive Motifs & Materials

There is a great deal of commonality in the motifs of primitive indigenous cultures, perhaps due to some ancient ancestral link, or due to a sameness in our primordial strivings and urges, or maybe it is just that there are only so many design possibilities. The main differences in cultural norms relate to the quantity of jewelry worn, the sex of the wearer, and the body location that the items are worn. The materials used, and the design motifs are all relatively similar.



Sara Kaba Tribesman

Sara Kaba tribesman c.1915 (photo: public domain)

   Foulah Tribal Jewelry

Foulah tribal jewelry & dress (photo: public domain)


Every conceivable type of ritual jewelry was used by tribal man, from the more conventional bangles, bracelets, chokers, earrings, necklaces, and finger rings, to more exotic items. such as anklets, cuffs, lip rings, toe rings, and various types of piercings. There are also jewelry items that are specific to a certain geographic region. These include armlets (India, Southeast Asia), lip-plates (West Africa), neck extending collars or rings (Burma), the borla and mang-tikka (Indian hair ornaments), nose ornaments (Africa, Southeast Asia, Native America, South American Amazon basin), and the ear spool (pre-Columbian Mesoamerica).

Since many indigenous tribal cultures are relatively poor, or have been subjected to plundering by Colonial powers, the selection of raw materials is somewhat humble. Simple metals are used such as brass, iron, copper, pewter, tin, silver-toned copper alloy, or oxidized white metal alloy; mixed with small amounts of silver and gold.


Beads in Tribal Jewelry

So-called "African trade beads" can be made from recycled or reclaimed items such as antique bottle glass, Czech glass beads, dice beads, porcelain "Prosser" beads, or decorative clay spindle-whorls; and they can be made from stone, semiprecious minerals or organic materials.

Semiprecious bead stones might include agate, chalcedony, carnelian, chrysocolla, so-called "greenstone" (chlorastrolite, chrysoprase, greenschist, omphacite, or serpentine), jade, jasper, lapis lazuli, onyx, obsidian, rock crystal, sardonyx, soapstone, terra cotta and turquoise.



African Spindle-Whorl Trade Beads

African spindle-whorl trade beads

   Tibetan Amber & Silver Beads

Tibetan amber & silver beads


Organic, or "zoogenous" materials are also popular bead materials. These materials might include bone, coconut shell, copal (an amber-like resin from the Copaifera tree), fire coral, hair, exotic hardwoods, so-called "Tibetan amber" (polymerized copal resin), wood resin, ivory, leather, nuts and seeds (job's tears, Coix lacryma-jobi), seed pearls, talons and claws, whole shells, colored yarn and mother-of-pearl. In tribal jewelry from Asian, Indian, and Persian cultures it is typical for most of these bead materials to be embellished with elaborate glyptic carvings that are representative of local motifs.



African Trade Beads

African trade beads

   Cambodian Dancer

Cambodian dancer (left), Samoan girl (right)


Beads are strung together with simple animal sinew, hair, hemp twine, or yarn; and can form a single strand of large disc-shaped, bicone, oval, sphere-shaped or drop beads; or they can be arranged in multiple strands of tiny "seed beads." Senegalese "love beads," or "Christmas Beads," use tiny seed beads that are strung into a multitude of strands that are used in traditional headdresses or as hair decoration.

Asian motif beadwork includes intricate Balinese beads in gold or silver, so-called "Hill Tribe" silver beads from the Karan tribe of the Golden Triangle; and tribal Cambodian, Chinese, Laotian, Burmese, Thai or Vietnamese metal beads from the Akha, Chin, Dong, Hmong (Miao), Lahu, Lisu or Shan tribes. Other countries that are known for their intricate metal beadwork are Bhutan Nagaland, Tibet, Nepal and India.



Tamil Jewelry & Beads

A young Tamil girl's jewelry (c. 1907)

   Afghan Tribal Silver Necklace

Turkmen silver & carnelian necklace


African, or Ethiopia amber (copal) beads come from the East African countries of Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Yemin. Copal from the resin of the Frankincense incense tree Boswellia carteri has been produced in this region for thousands of years, and one of the largest ethnic groups to produce this amber is the nomadic Oromo from Ethiopia. As the copal beads are formed, the bead-makers can create patterns on the surface of the bead by working it with hot sticks.


Nose Ornaments & Piercing

Nose ornaments have been worn by most tribal cultures for thousands of years, and can be as simple as a single ring, barbell or pin; or as complex as the giant mesh or fan-style nose ornaments worn by the Pre-Columbian Moche peoples of Peru and Colombia.

The Matis Indians of Amazon Rainforest (aka "Jaguar People") use several thin spines from the ungurahui palm (Oenocarpus bataua), pierced through the septum at odd angles, to simulate the appearance of the jaguar's whiskers [3]. The MatsÈs Indians of the RÌo G·lvez (aka "Cat People") also simulate the whiskers of a jungle cat using foot-long spines made from caÒa brava reeds (Gynerium sagittatum), which can also be used to make spears and poison darts. MatsÈs women also use the reeds to pierce a perforation in their lower lip [6].



Dahomey Tribe in Benin

Dahomey tribe in Benin (drawing c. 1890)

   Asmat Nose Ornament Irian Jaya

Asmat tribe nose ornament (photo: © Lou Rose)


Traditional Hindu women from the Indian subcontinent use nose rings to signify marital status, and these can also be very complex, conneting to the hair with elaborate chains. Nostril, septum and bridge piercings can be made of only metal, or decorated with pearls and precious or semiprecious gemstones. Men from the Austro-Asiatic Asmat tribe of the south-coast of Irian Jaya, Indonesia (West Papua), wear enormous nasal ornamentations (up to 8 inches in width) made of flat, spiral-shaped boar tusk.


Body Modifications in Primitive Culture

Body modifications and other "improvements" on nature are as old as civilization itself, and were practiced in some form by nearly every primitive culture. Islam is one of the few cultures that forbids this type of beautification, as it is considered to be a defiling of God's creation. These modifications include body piercing, fetishist scarification, tattooing, ear, nose, lip and forehead reshaping (africa, pre-Columbian Mesoamerica), neck stretching (Burma), feat binding (China), and a host of other "beautification" methods.

Ritual scarring, or "fetishist scarification" and body modification was, and still is popular with various South and West African fetish-worshipping tribes such as the Diola ( Senegal, Gambia), Dahomey (Benin), Foulah Tong (Senegal), Kirdi (Camaroon), Malinke (Niger, Guinea), Sara Kaba (Central African Republic) and Soussou (South Africa).



Kayan Long Neck Woman

Kayan long neck woman (photo: Wiki CC/2.0)

   Mentawai Tribesmen in Sumatra

Mentawai tribesmen in West Sumatra c.1895


In the Southeast Asia country of Burma (Myanmar), the Tibeto-Burman ethnic tribespeople known as the Kayan (aka Padaung) have a unique form of body modification. The Kayan "long neck" women stretch their necks by adding successive brass coils as they develop from childhood. There are several theories as to the origin and purpose of this type of modification, ranging from a simple desire to maintain their cultural identity, to exaggerating dimorphism, and even to protect women from becoming slaves by making them less attractive [4]. There are only around 7,000 surviving members of the Kayan tribe remaining in Myanmar, and the government is discouraging the practice in order to appear more modern.

Like the Kayan women of Burma, the Austro-Asiatic Bonda tribe (aka: Remo) wears multiple neck rings made of silver, but they are loose-fitting and not intended for stretching the neck. The Bonda plainsmen are one of the oldest and most primitive tribes in mainland India, living in the lowland mountains of the Malkangiri District, in the Indian state of Orissa.

The Amazonian Matis Indians wear ear ornaments made with 2-inch-in diameter conical-shaped snail shells that are attached to the end of a long wooden dowel that is pierced through the earlobe. These ornaments are believed to enhance a hunter's hearing ability [3].


Primitive Fetishism & Totemism

In the tribal world, a "fetish" is any object, be it natural or man-made, that is believed to have supernatural powers, or power over others. The term "fetishism" describes the attribution of inherent power of a given object, or "fetish." The word was derived from the French word "fÈtiche," which comes from the Portuguese word "feitiÁo," and the Latin word facticius, meaning "artificial," and facere, meaning "to make."



Borneo Tribal Dress

Borneo tribal dress (photo: © Charles Hose)

   Kayan Long Neck Woman

Fetish jewelry from Sumatra (photo: Primitive Erotic Art)


Although the contemporary use of the word "fetish" has become synonymous with eroticism and sexuality, the traditional/tribal use of the fetish was tied to every aspect of village life, from agricultural concerns, weather and social harmony or discord, to health, fertility and procreation. Fetishes are typically modeled after the object of concern, such as a person, animal, body part, etc.

A "totem" is similar to a fetish in that it is an inanimate object (carved figurine, animal part, etc.) that has shamanistic powers, and takes the form of an animal or other naturalistic figure that spiritually represents a group of related people, tribes or clans.


Tattooing & Ritual Scarification

Henna (Mehndi in Hindi) tattooing dates back to ancient Africa, Indian and Tamil, Persian, Mesopotamian, Bedouin, Maori and Moorish tribes. The dye for this type of tattoo is not totally permanent, and is made from the henna plant (Lawsonia inermis) which is native to tropical and subtropical regions of Africa and Southeast Asia.



Maori Tribesman's Henna Tattoo

Maori tribesman with ta moko facial tattoo

   Woman with Ritual Scarification

African woman with ritual scarification (photo: public d.)


In India, Persia and the Middle Esat, elaborate henna tattoos are worn on the hands and forearms, creating the illusion of decorative lace gloves. The cultural significance of henna tattoos varies from ethnicity to ethnicity, but the general symbolism is related to spiritual enlightenment, fertility, and good health. As an adornment for the Indian wedding ceremony, the henna tattoo, or mehndi is associated with transcendence and transformation.

The Maori, who are an indigenous aboriginal tribe from the island Aotearoa (New Zealand), migrated from Eastern Polynesia between 800 AD and 1300 AD. These ancient Polynesians were known for the ta moko, which is both an elaborate facial tattoo, and a form of scarification. The scarification was made by carving the skin with an uhi (chisel) which created depressed grooves in the skin, rather than a smooth surface created by puncturing. The Maori Chief in the illustration above (left) has a classic facial ta moko, as well as a traditional hair "topknot" that is decorated with feathers, a comb made of bone, and a greenstone earring and pendant.


Jewelry & Paganism

All known primitive tribes practiced some form of Paganism, which simply refers to any spiritual practices that are both polytheistic, and pre-Christian. These include folk religions that use animistic, pantheistic or transformational shamanic practices and rituals. Primitive pagan cultures were historically referred to as "heathens" or "savages," which were used as pejorative terms by the adherents of Western monotheistic religions. Pagan tribal culture and spirituality typically revolved around the concept that souls or spirits exist in humans, as well as in animals, plants or inanimate objects. When used by a Pagan shaman, healer or priest, a shamanic transformation fetish can alter the perceived reality of the subject, having a social and spiritual, as well as a chemical and metabolic effect on them.



Jewelry and fetishes that contain animal parts such as teeth, bone, skin or hide, claws, talons and hair played a particularly significant role in Pagan beliefs. The wearer of these types of ornamentations believed that he or she actually possessed the soul of the animal, imbuing the wearer with the animal's attributes and strengths: speed, courage, strength, cunning and stealthiness.


Northern Eskimo Tribes

The term "Eskimo" refers to three main aboriginal tribes of the Arctic region in North America that are: the Inuit (Inuvialuit) tribe who are indigenous to northern Canada (Nunavut), the Yupik (Yup'ik) who are indigenous to western Alaska, and the Aleut who are indigenous to the Aleutian Islands. All of these tribe have practiced some form of shamanism based on animist principles, and this is reflected in their jewelry.

For the Inuit tribe, the Inukshuk is a recurring motif in jewelry. The Inukshuk, meaning "image of man's spirit," was a type of man-like totem sculptural signpost placed along the continent's northern shores as a marker to lead their way.

Inuit jewelry is fairly simple, consisting of amulets which were worn to ward off evil and bring good fortune; copper or leather headbands decorated with animal teeth, and "hairsticks" which were pieces of caribou bone around which they wound their hair. Jewelry was made from silver, antler, bone, ivory tusk, and soapstone. Bone or fossilized ivory might be scrimshawed with pictographs of animals, dancing, hunting, fishing, village life or shamanistic ceremonies.





Tribal Ethnic Jewelry Books
Asian Ethnic Jewelry Books




Bibliography on Primitive Tribal Jewelry


1. Oppi Untracht, Jewelry Concepts & Technology - Complete Reference Guide . Doubleday

2. C. Hose, W. McDougall, Physical Characters of the Races of Borneo . Adamant Media Corp.

3. The Matis & MatsÈs Indians of the Amazon Rainforest . www.amazon-indians.org

4. Burma: Kayan's Long-Neck Women . www.nationmaster.com

5. Malkangiri, The Bonda Tribe of Orissa, India . www.malkangiri.nic.in

6. J. Waymire, Plants Used for Craftwork in The Peruvian Amazon . www.biobio.com

7. African Trade Beads . www.africantradebeads.com

8. John & Ruth Picard, Porcelain Prosser Beads . www.beadcollector.net

9. Southeast Asian Beads . www.oldbeads.com

10. Tribal History of Papua New Guinea . www.janesoceania.com

11. Tribal Art Collections . www.tribalartasia.com

12. Nunavut Culture, Development of Art in Nunavut . www.nacaarts.org

13. Lucienne et Jesus Rome, Primitive Erotic Art . Liber (1983)

14. The MatsÈs: Indigenous People of the Amazon . www.matses.info



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