Aboriginal Scarification

In Australia, scarring was practised widely, but is now restricted almost entirely to parts of Arnhem Land. Scarring is like a language inscribed on the body, where each deliberately placed scar tells a story of pain, endurance, identity, status, beauty, courage, sorrow or grief.

Body Scarification

 © Australian Museum

Like rdoyrdoy ngayineh murlahngene like mitjjindah you-know.
My mother's mother's father and my grandmother, like long ago...

barrrdetjmerriny mitjjindahgan.
In former times, they cut one another.

Baganh baganh baganh birrahgah.
Here [on the shoulder], here [on the other shoulder], here, on the chest.

Barrganginy mitjjindah now from early days yo like yarranbamuttiya [m].
They practised it long ago and in those days they showed us what to do.

Ya-ngema like ya-ngema nendah bolitj.
We call them bolitj [adornment scar].

Barrayininy or barrnane yimeng like yarratyongern marreevahburrk.
They said or they saw you getting bigger, growing up, like an adult.

Like you-know like barrrdetjme bolitj yappan.
Like you know they would cut maybe two bolitj.

Gerhyih barrrdetjmerreniny gerhyih yappan bo barrbordohminy banhwala.
They would cut each other with a stone knife. With a stone knife they would put two, or there, they would put two.

Barramoyoknyarhminy walangbolhminy now nanh bolitj.
They had burnt and cut the wound, then the adornment scar would come up.

Barramoyokjarlukkugarr walang bolhminy now bolitj.
They put it on the wound and then it comes up as an adornment scar.

Bob Burruwal, Rembarrnga, Arnhem Land

 

 

Old people, all gone now. Used to see them as a young girl working in the Wyndham Hotel. Long long time, not new generation. Stopped in the 1930s. Young man 18 or 19 gone through the law. Used to make the scar with 'jimpilam kemerrempurru' (sharp rock for making scars). Get scars before marrying. Marks made straight down - as long as a finger - on the shoulder sometimes 2 or 3 marks both side.

Scars on woman long time ago. This time nothing. Finished. Scars between breasts. Use jimpilam on girls too. Old people passed away. Nothing left. No law and no anything. They had a good law.
Doris Fletcher, Kija people, Kimberley region, north Western Australia

All those rock engravings in the countryside are what we call tribal marks, maburn in our language. The cuttings all over our country are also on people. The cuts are a stamp or a seal. Wardaman people [both men and women] have two cuts on each shoulder, two on the chest and four on the belly. Jawoyn people only have one cut on the shoulder, one on the chest and a big long one on the belly. Other people have three cuts on the shoulder and many on the belly.

You must have the cuts before you can trade anything, before you can get married, before you can sing ceremonial songs and before you can blow a didgeridoo at big burial ceremonies. In the past, everyone had to have all these cuts and a hole in their nose. If they didn't, they were 'cleanskin' or unbranded, and unbranded people couldn't do anything.

The cuts are made when a man or woman is around 16 or 17. They make them with a stone knife, made out of a special type of rock like jaspar. This rock is like stainless steel, very sharp so you can't feel it cutting. After the cut is made, they put a little burnt wood on the cut, We call it conkerberry and it's bush medicine - stops the cut from bleeding. They put the stick in the hot ashes before they make the cuts on the boy or girl, and after they're cut, they put the stick on the cut. They have to keep the stick on the cut until the skin dries up and the stick falls off. Sometimes they also put on the ashes of a gum tree, like a powder. This also stops the bleeding and keeps the skin firm.

These cuts on our bodies relate to the rock paintings. The maburn on the rock are like a letter that tells people they are in Wardaman tribal land.

Yidumduma Bill Harnie, Wardaman Aboriginal Corporation, Northern Territory

 


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