Jewelry is a common thread among societies that serve as a way to celebrate the history and cultural trends at any given time. What is seen as a symbol of beauty and heritage to some may seem odd or repulsive to others. In western societies, some sub-cultures pierce parts of their bodies other than, what is most common, their ears. Nose, upper ear and lip piercings are becoming increasingly popular in western culture.
Travel to the other side of the world and go deep into the jungles of the African continent and Brazil and you will find a few tribes that wear lip plates as symbols of beauty and fertility for women, and, for young boys, his venture into manhood.
There are several different tribes on the African continent that still wear lip plates. In Ethiopia’s lower Omo River Valley, the Surma and Mursi tribes pierce a young girl’s lip between the ages of 15-16 years old. This is done up to a year before she is to be married. The first piercing is a small incision that measures one to two centimeters in length and a small, wooden peg also called a labret is added. Another, slightly larger, peg is inserted two to three weeks after the wound has healed.
The first clay plate, also called a “sigaro”, is added when the hole reaches about four centimeters in length. The girl’s two lower front teeth, sometimes all four, have to be removed so that the lip plate will fit properly. The women of the Surma and Mursi tribes design their own clay plates, sometimes adding extra embellishments to flaunt their distinct personalities. The plates are placed at increasingly larger sizes until they are about 10 to 15 centimeters in diameter. However, there have been women who have been photographed wearing lip plates that measure 25 inches in circumference.
In Brazil, there are some Amazonian tribes whose young men wear lip plates as a symbol of entering manhood. The lip plates are also a symbol of a man having a talent for singing or oratory skills. The men who displayed the best skill sets for either of these talents were given the largest plates. In the Suya men, the lip plugs are inserted shortly after birth and, eventually a six centimeter plate replaces it. During the time of the Spanish conquests, the indigenous people of South America would fashion the lip plugs out of stone, rock crystal or gold. Some tribes even wore the plugs and plates on both the upper and lower lips.
Another South American tribe who wore lip plates was the Botocudo. These men also called themselves Nac-poruk which means “sons of the soil”. The Botocundo called their lip plates tambeitera and started piercing the lips of young boys around the age of eight. A small stick is inserted in the initial hole and, over time, a ten centimeter plug or plate is added. Eventually, the tribe started to allow young women to pierce their lips as well.
There are many theories surrounding why the women in these African tribes wear lip plates. Some of them have sparked heated debates about how the women in these societies are treated. One theory asserts that the men started piercing the women’s lips to make them unattractive to slave traders. This theory also surrounded the Padaung women of Asia who wear neck rings. The Surma and Mursi people have long disputed this theory. They assert that the lip plates are a symbol of a girl’s journey into womanhood; much like the Suya men of Brazil.
Many western cultures argue that this is a barbaric custom, but it is starting to creep into the undercurrent of western societies. Some of the youth in western countries on the fringe of society have started to pierce their bottom lips, some are even inserting large pegs as a symbol of their uniqueness. It is doubtful that this practice will catch on in the west, but one cannot undermine the value that the practice of wearing lip plates have to the African and Brazilian tribes who wear them. It is human nature to feel a sense of pride in one’s background and to follow the traditions of our forefathers. Wearing jewelry, for men and women, is a beautiful expression of being a part of a society as asserting one’s individual personality. Whether an individual pierces their ears or, as in this case, pierces their lips; they are merely using jewelry as a tool of art imitating aspects of life.