Permanent body modification: archaeological and early historical evidence

Session Date: 
Feb 9, 2024

Today, permanent body modification (PBM) is very popular. Studies suggest that well over a billion living people have experienced one or more types of PBM. But what is the history of PBM? When did the different types originate? Were they invented recently, or do they have a long history? Did they appear simultaneously or at different times? In this presentation, we shed some light on these questions. We begin by considering whether there is any evidence of PBM in non-human animals or our extinct hominin relatives. From there, we discuss the early archaeological and historical evidence of seven of the main types of PBM practiced by modern humans: tattooing, scarification, amputation, piercing, genital modification, dental modification, and bone shaping. We first outline some of the earliest possible evidence of the types, followed by some of the later, yet more secure, evidence for them. There is, we show, strong evidence indicating that humans have been practicing PBM for at least 15,000 years. We also show that there is weaker but still intriguing evidence suggesting that PBM has a much deeper antiquity in human history, perhaps dating as far back as 80,000 years ago.

File 2024_02_09_03_McCauley.mp4104.96 MB