Tools Adornments and Body Art

We come back to earth with the human toilette, which was very much a celebration of the living human form and a constant reminder of the endless human labour that was going on behind the scenes. We have already investigated the biology of personal hygiene; and purity rules have shown how the skin could become a significant cultural boundary between the self and the world. But for many people today there is one sole and sufficient reason for practising personal hygiene that eclipses all others: self-representation. It was at some time during the Neolithic that the body became an artwork. The human capacity for aesthetics must surely have been one of those ontological prewired conditions waiting to be learnt, ready to be sharpened and inspired by all the sensuous colours, smells, and forms displayed in nature. Neolithic technology gave us most of the cosmetic body-art we have today, including the specific decoration of the different body parts, and the clothing styles and adornments that became, in effect, an artificial 'second skin'. Washing and bathing the human body also required artificial technologies all of their own, and are only partly natural.51

Although it was technological expertise that perfected highart Neolithic body culture, there were a number of animal grooming techniques around that could have been observed, copied, and refined. Animals regularly use water, mud, or dust baths. Apes and chimpanzees are especially fond of tools (and toys) and frequently use stones for massage, twigs for cleaning teeth, or bundles of leaves like towels or napkins. Animals also scent and oil themselves;a whole new world of zoopharmacog-nancy—the discovery and use of natural drugs by animals— opens up when we consider the small white-nosed coati who go to a particular aspen tree to wallow or rub themselves with camphor resin once a day; or the spider monkeys who use a citrus tree in much the same way.52

But the unique methods of human skin decoration only worked on a clean or naked canvas. The gradual loss—or adaptation of—human body hair (fur) over millions of years gave the final shape to human grooming habits. In the tropical and semi-tropical zones where bipedal hominids originated, hairlessness is supposed to have been a heat advantage; though in colder regions, artificial clothing became another adaptive heat advantage as a replacement furred hide—which of course is what such costumes were made of, in the days before artificial cloth. Growing population numbers may have been another cause of change. Lacking other natural markings on their pelage, the body-painting, hairstyling, and other adornments that distinguished human beings from other beasts presumably made them more readily and easily identifiable to each other, especially from a distance.

All Neolithic body-art was and still is an 'art for the parts', in that each different body part or grooming zone goes to make up the decorative whole, and any or all of the grooming zones can be emphasized for special artistic attention. Thus the eyes, nose, ears, mouth, hair, neck, arms, hands, fingernails, breasts, waist, navel, legs, feet, ankles, and toes have all been given decorative forms everywhere. Particularly elaborate hand and nail art, for example, still survives in South-East Asia;and hair art in Africa; but nothing quite matches the cosmetic dental art of tooth-filing and coloured tooth-inlays—tooth art—practised among the ancient Aztecs.53 The condition of the skin was always considered especially important. It was either well oiled and glossy or (as in Namibia and many other places worldwide) carefully rubbed over with the ochre-coloured earth; both treatments also help against infestation and sunburn. The African Nuba tribe have words to describe each different style of body movement, every visible muscle on the body (and even the indentations between them), and five different types of skin abrasions: 'if a man has... a minor abrasion, he will not paint or call attention to his body in any way;dry, flaky skin is not merely considered unattractive, it signifies that a person has removed himself from normal social intercourse'.54

The earliest human body idols from southern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East are ubiquitously painted with red ochre, over-painted by stripes of other colours, particularly chalk white, and the blue, yellow, and black vegetable dyes (woads). One 42,000 bce cave settlement on a beach at the tip of southern Africa has revealed evidence of red ochre paints and a paint-grinding stone set just within the cave entrance.55 Other forms of radical body manipulation—tattooing, circumcision, body-branding, the stretching of earlobes, necks, mouths, and noses, ring-piercing, the binding and moulding of arm and leg bones, waists, feet, and skulls—depended entirely on the specialized skills of whatever community you were born into. Skin-tattooing had appeared on all continents by the Late Neolithic, but found a particular home in the southern Pacific;in New Guinea today the Roro people will describe the untattooed person as 'raw', comparing him unfavourably with uncooked meat. Contemporary Melanesian body-art involves tattoos, scarification, teeth-blackening, penis gourds, noseplugs, earplugs, and much casual ornamentation of leaves, flowers, fur, or feathers.56

From around 30,000 to 40,000 bce the ornamental layer seems to have developed fast, as the string revolution started to kick in. The world's earliest rock art and sculptures show figures with head ornaments, fringed armbands, beaded girdles, and braided hairstyling; while a large industrial bead-making site from c.30,000 bce at Dolni Vestonice, in the Czech Republic, has been described as the 'New York of the Palaeolithic': finds there included exotic beaded costumes, braids, hats, ropes, nets, and a very extensive ceramics industry.57 One of the most spectacular early Eurasian burial sites is at Sunghir' in Russia, dated around 24,000 bce, where the bodies of two high-status children were found wearing full-length costumes sewn with 3,500 mammoth ivory beads;other graves contained ivory bracelets, pendants, necklaces, and rings. Such graves prove beyond doubt that, 'weather permitting', as one archaeologist rather quaintly put it, 'Ice Age people may have been dressed and decorated with more elegance than generally imagined.'58 In fact the children must have been dazzling in life as well as in death. Cloth and clothing technology developed even faster during the 'secondary products revolution' of the Eurasian Bronze Age from c.4000 bce, when ivory, stone, pottery, and wood products were rivalled by metal.59 Fine cosmetic tools became prestigious grave goods—especially the burnished bronze mirrors that enabled people to study their own face and hair closely and conveniently for the first time, alongside well-made combs, knives, paint palettes, and small metal water buckets. One of the best-preserved bodies we have from the ancient past is the ice mummy, or 'Ice Maiden', from the Iron Age Pazyrick tribe in Siberia, a high-class female buried around 400 bce. Her whole body was tattooed with stylized trees and flowers all over the neck, back, and chest, with two deer, whose antlers flowed wavelike up both arms. Her next ornamental layer was a white silk embroidered blouse, a red dress, a long red sash, thigh-length red leather boots, necklaces, and a 3-foot-high headdress—which took up a third of the coffin—carved and coated with golf leaf. Also buried with her were her horses, her drinking cup—and her face mirror.60 By that time the new metal technology was simply an extra bonus.

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