Rufus C. Camphausen,
Return of the Tribal:
A Celebration of Body Adornment

(Inner Traditions, 1998)

At some time or another, most young people have considered getting some portion of their anatomy pierced or tattooed as a sign of rebellion. For me, it was the extra, symbolic piercing in my left earlobe. Try and think of how many people you know that don't have pierced ears, and think of the number of people that you would never have thought would get tattooed, but reveal one on a hot summer's day. Even in our society, it is not unusual to find average people who have modified their bodies in some way. Once the sole province of sailors, tough bikers and rebellious youths, tattooing and piercing are becoming more "mainstream."

Rufus C. Camphausen examines this trend in his book Return of the Tribal: A Celebration of Body Adornment, a history of tattooing, piercing, body painting and scarification. He contends that tribal peoples throughout history have practiced methods of body adornment or modification and our modern society is merely rediscovering millennia old practices. Beginning with a timeline of body adornment, Camphausen demonstrates that people have been decorating their bodies in various ways from around 60,000 BCE to the present day.

Camphausen differentiates between noninvasive and invasive techniques of modification. Under the former category come such practices as polishing fingernails, wearing colored contact lenses, coloring hair and body painting. Invasive techniques are those that change the body in some permanent or semi-permanent way. Piercings, henna tattooing, scarification, tooth filing and cosmetic surgery are among these techniques.

The author discusses the many reasons that people are drawn to modify their bodies. In our modern society, such reasons range from rebellion to the desire to be seen as an individual, while in some tribal societies, in order to be considered an adult or a member of the tribe (often one and the same), one must have certain markings. These markings often include scars, amputations, piercings and tattoos. Body adornment is governed by the standards of beauty a society conforms to. For instance, in certain African tribes, a woman with a huge plate piercing and stretching her lip is considered beautiful, while in the United States, a perfectly coifed and made-up woman is considered beautiful.

Camphausen's book is more than just a history of body adornment. Chapters include discussions of how and why people are driven to modify their appearances, the usage of pain for atunement to the spiritual or atonment for one's transgressions and the place of sex, drugs and ritual in life.

Return of the Tribal is a slim book, easily read in one sitting. It is copiously illustrated with photographs that depict everything from African tribesmen with pierced noses, ears and multiple scars to multiply pierced and tattooed modern punks. One warning, many of the photographs are very graphic, showing such things as pierced labia or nipples. A glossary of terms related to body adornment is included, with information that is not mentioned in the text, including the author's intense aversion to the practice of clitoridectomy. There is also an extensive bibliography.

I would recommend this book to anyone contemplating a tattoo or an unusual piercing, or who is interested in the history of such things. The text is informative and interesting, although the author does spend more time than is necessary preaching about tolerance and respect for different cultures; one gets the impression that his own tattoos and pierced ears have raised more than a few eyebrows. The best part of the Return of the Tribal, however, is definitely the sumptuous photography; I looked at all the pictures and read the accompanying captions before I even read the text.

[ by Laurie Thayer ]

Buy it from