The Scarification of Dinka Youth

by Cory

As humans, we innately look for ways to integrate ourselves into a common group. From piercings to tattoos to the clothes on our back to our very beliefs, we are in constant search for connection, and hopefully, a group we can call our own. It is through these actions, decisions and manners of self presentation that we factor into society.

For the Dinka people of southern Sudan, scarring one’s body is not only a way to find your clan in society- it is a full-blown right of passage. The ritual is performed on both boys and girls. The scarring patterns tell a story of personal bravery in the face of extreme pain, as well as where a particular individual belongs. The belonging sought in this sense is one of clan ties: different patterns are associated with different clans. Along with clan ties, scars can also signify physical beauty, namely in female individuals. As an added bonus to females, various scars from their forehead to their liver areas can be regarded as symbols of fertility, good health, eye sight and an increased resistance to headaches. A symbolic and interpretive anthropologist would argue that these scars are the direct result of learned clan traditions. Passed down through the years, from old to new, the symbolic scarring defines the Dinka people. When Clifford Geertz wrote of “webs of significance” defining man’s construction of culture, he argued that the given cultural laws were not scientific, but rather purposed for a “search of meaning”. With the Dinka scars representative of clans and well as being a direct product of culture, the symbols bring the various peoples together through a perceived sense of physical belonging.

Along with a significant symbolic meaning, these practices and rituals can be related to structural-functionalism. Frontier structural-functionalist Radcliffe-Brown suggested that the individual was “irrelevant and replaceable”. In Dinka culture, individuals who show no emotion (wincing, crying, screaming, etc.) are seen as worthy members of the group. They have passed from their adolescence to adult hood, quite literally by the razor’s edge. They now fill a man’s roles and responsibilities in the group, as proven by this test of courage. Alternatively, if the participant breaks this silence, they find themselves losing “a great deal of face” in the community. These individuals find themselves having their responsibilities given to tougher, braver persons. The brave find a pivotal role in society. The weak do not find this same recognition. From this comes the structure and function of the tribe, as decided by strength and courage.

Though painful and bloody the scars of the Dinka are multi-faceted. From beauty to courage to health, from clan ties and a sense of shared belonging, the brutal cuts bring about a great deal of symbolic meaning as well as a physical show of the structure and function to befall these individuals.

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22 Responses to The Scarification of Dinka Youth

  1. Alex Havlick says:

    I thought your paper did a good job explaining the Dinka people’s “rite of passage”. it is interesting to interpret something that i would find so terrifying as an integral part of coming of age in their society. i also thought it interesting that the “bonus” scars over their livers are seen as symbols of good health, (perhaps my grandfather would be considered healthy among the Dinka) as i view people with a lot of scars as people who have had tough, and not particularly healthy pasts. Furthermore, i found the fact that both men and women get these scars to be interesting. Do you know how similar gender roles are between men and women in Dinka society?

  2. This essay was incredible interesting and informative, the author did a fantastic job of stating the facts of this practice in the Dinka culture. It is true that across all culture around the world there are forms of body modification that serve the purpose not just of looks but of showing those around the person a specific time, right of passage or event that the wearer of the art went through. It seems that the Dinka use scarification as a very serious way of giving a person a life story and purpose that is visible to any onlooker who knows what the symbols mean. The only difference between what the Dinka do and what many Americans do with tattooing is the age when the rituals are preformed and the fact that they must stay strong and quiet to protect their dignity during the scarification. It is things like this that show us just how close we all are to what seems to be the polar opposite from our culture.

  3. BethanyA says:

    very interesting read! I would be careful of bias and opinion language, such as “brutal cuts” or “added bonus” for the first, ‘brutal’ means different things for different people and may imply that these scars come from aggressive or even violent origins.
    “added bonus” like wise gives the audience a pre-decided interpretation of what these scars mean for women. As we’ve talked about in class sexuality for females can be defining for how they’re treated in society. Do these types of markers put limitations on female? Are the necessarily beneficial? If the focus of the paper is somewhere else, then try to use more descriptive and observatory language instead of stating those kinds of opinion driven statements.
    But I did really enjoy it!!

  4. Allie Wolff says:

    I think your paper is very well written and interesting. This seems to be very important to the Dinka people and seems to define many ways in which Dinka people are situated in society. I agree that there is are very strong symbolic meanings behind the patterns of the scarring. I find it interesting that their reactions to the painful process of scarring can be a determinant of if they are worthy or not of being in the group. I also think that it was helpful how you mentioned Clifford Geertz and Radcliffe-Brown in support of both anthropological perspectives. Well done!

  5. Ben Medalie says:

    I find it captivating that cultures like the Dinka in Sudan have such intense, personable body altering traditions that mean so much to their society and lives as a whole. In America, often times family members or close friends get similar tattoos to tell a story of their relationships or important life events. Yet in America, the only time large groups of people get body altering tattoos or scars as a clan are within gangs or cult organizations. For example, just like the Dinka’s in Sudan, the notorious gang members of MS-13 get tattoos all over their body, even on their faces, to tell stories of their tough, key life experiences. These cultural body modifications represent bravery and courage within cultures like the Dinka and although some American gangs also participate in similar traditions, within this Sudanese culture, scarring is the norm in society and everyone, both men and women take part in this tradition. I thought this essay was very interesting and gave a perfect depiction of how cultures and their customs can be polar opposites of each other across the globe.

  6. comc9215 says:

    Right off the bat I’d like to say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading your essay due to its unique topic. It was good to hear of cultural phenomenon in places other than the united states and focus on analyzing them within our currently learned means. I find the cultural concept of scarring and other forms of intentional infliction of bodily injury interesting as we as Americans might consider that a silly or outdated tradition, and anthropologists of the old theory of “Cultural Evolution” might deem this a characteristic of primitive or uncivilized people. This however is most likely not the case, and even can be some traditions of the civilized world. Historically speaking, showing prominence through pain is not uncommon among most parts of the world. Whether you look at old traditions such as foot wrapping in China or the concept of gaining respect through ones prowess in battle in many cultures, the idea of personal injury gaining respect is something that happens throughout the world and throughout history as a whole (a thought that works hand-in-hand with cultural relativism).

  7. Faisal Lalani says:

    The idea that scars symbolize strength is actually something I’ve seen often. It’s almost as if enduring the pain is a test of manhood, and the scar is the grade showing people that you’ve passed. In your essay you also mentioned how showing emotions like sadness or fear was a sign of weakness, and men who outgrow such feelings grew to be true leaders. What amazes me about this is the intense stress probably involved with such a feat. To present yourself, at all times, in a manner that refuses to show common human behavior (crying, screaming). Overall, I enjoyed your essay and I find it fascinating how many cultures, including our own, view triumph through pain as the sole indicator of bravery. There’s a saying; “‘Can a man be brave if he’s afraid?
    ‘That’s the only time a man can be brave.'”

  8. Leah Hilleman says:

    This article was extremely interesting to me. I have always been fascinated by “body art” or “body modifications” in other cultures. Scarification seems so inhuman and out worldly to me, but looking at it in retrospect I’m sure many people say that about tattoos in the contemporary United States. It is amazing that in the Dinka community it is viewed as a right of passage. To them, body mutilation is a beautiful and brave representative of their belonging to a community of people. I still cannot believe that there is no crying, wincing or screaming during this transformation into adulthood. I winced when I got my ears pierced, I can’t imagine sitting through the pain of scarification. It is strange to think that a normal human reaction to a stimulus, such as the ones received during scarification, is considered a sign of weakness or sadness.

  9. Izzy Reynolds says:

    I found this essay really interesting a thought-provoking. In American society different forms of scarring are used, just not thought of as “scars”. Tattoos for example, are a way of expressing yourself through something visually permanent, much like the Dinka’s scars. That being said, things like piercings and any body modification happen all over the world. It’s interesting that I interpret the Dinka’s practice of scarring as scary, but tattoos(which are just as painful) I consider beautiful.

  10. connor says:

    This is a very powerful essay that is right to the point about everything and tells the reader a lot of information. This extreme form of scarring that takes place in the Dinka community is just a more aggressive and some might say serious form of tattooing that we see in the United States. Many of these markings symbolize gang membership, enrollment in the military, and are sometimes a way of remembering lost ones. In this way, these markings and there symbolizes lightly resemble each other. Although I am sure that the Dinka people would not be too appreciative or welcoming of an ironic tattoo of “my little pony” or a pokemon as much as they are of their traditional scarring.

  11. Hayley Bibbiani says:

    I found this essay really interesting. While westerners have piercings and tattoos, there are many western people who find scars unsightly, yet in the Dinka community, scars are seen as beauty and signs of maturation. Besides this, your theory connections are in depth and well thought out. I appreciate that you used a culture that not as many people are familiar with, therefore people can easily see the cultural variances, for example, in “rights of passages.” I was also particularly interested in this essay because I wrote my first essay on the Myanmar people wearing neck rings. Overall, I think you did a good job writing about an unordinary topic, where as most people choose body image or tattoos to write about.

  12. Jona Block says:

    Really great job of linking the scarring practice to symbolic / interpretive and structural functionalism. Your essay also is a great example of how we can and should not think ethnocentrically. These practices may seem gruesome to us at first glance, but when you look a little deeper through these anthropological theories, they become much more than scarring. Most of the other essays focus on things within our own culture, so it was nice to see an analysis of something else.

  13. Tyler Nielsen says:

    I like this essay and the idea. I imagine a functionalist could assert that this process brings out the toughest individuals in order to fulfill the jobs requiring the hardest workers. This leaves the weaker individuals to take care of the less intensive although not necessarily less important work. This allows everyone to be working in their rightful and proper place to meet universal needs.

  14. Good essay, it does a good job of explaining a different cultures view on the transition from adolescence to adult hood. it was also cool how you talk bout the body modification known as scaring and how it relates to their culture. Such an idea can seem very alien to down right weird to some Americans who have never heard of scaring. The practice of self harming by scaring is seen in america as the sign of a troubled person or the product of the stereotypical emo kid as a way to draw attention to himself, but to the Dinka its a way to transition from childhood to adulthood, this fact is fascinating to me. Overall great essay!

  15. Samantha Pollak says:

    It’s just fascinating to look at self-harm and body mutilation across cultures and I’m glad you shared this unique Sudanese practice. You could’ve done without the introductory paragraph altogether, but everything else was pretty solid. I liked your first theory, symbolic and interpretive better than the second, structural-functionalist, because you were able to clarify it more. I would flesh out your second theory a little bit better. But all around, this essay was interesting and just shows how different cultures value machismo or bravery.

  16. Martha Wheeler says:

    Your paper reminded me of all of the historical phenomena of body scarification and the effects it has on societies – mostly for identifying royals who were seen as other worldly because of their body modifications. It’s very interesting to see now how body scarification is stigmatized compared to how it was idolized in the past. Across cultures and time we can see these views changing, altering how we view the body and how we appreciate it. In the Dinka culture you discussed, we can see how the lack of modifications can displace one in society while in contemporary United States, the presence of body scarification can be disturbing and clearly denotes certain people’s status.

  17. Paige Maguire says:

    What an interesting cultural tradition to learn about! Reading through your essay I was very interested in the actual tradition itself and maybe that is why, but I didn’t find your connections to the symbolic and structural-functionalism lenses of anthropology to be as clear as they could’ve been. However I found the quote from Clifford Geertz to be very appropriate for the idea that scarring provides meaning more than anything for the Dinka people. I would agree that these scars do provide major structure and function to the Dinka society as well, separating people by clan and by braveness. This provides an obvious social structure/stratification for them.

  18. Jenna says:

    This is essay is extremely interesting and informative. I like how you explore the dichotomy that exists between societies concerning the practice of scarification. In United States society, there is a huge stigma attached to scarification, it’s a taboo that few people find acceptable or beautiful. In the Dinka culture, it’s a rite of passage, something that solidifies one’s place and one’s belonging to his or her group. I find it very interesting that both boys and girls take part in scarification and while the practice might still be gendered in some ways, it is expected and assumed that both men and women have the same capabilities of courage and bravery under circumstances of extreme pain.

  19. Evan Nassano-Miller says:

    Very interesting with what you did and what Radcliffe-Brown said. It seems that despite this process is joining a group, while Radcliffe-Brown says the individual is irrelevant, this seems to be a process where that’s very much so not the case. The way I see it, it isn’t just a copy-paste process, but how the individual handles the scarification, like you explained, they can “lose face” if they show pain. This test defines the individual and it is entirely their doing, making them pretty relevant, especially since it affects how others see that individual for the rest of their life.

  20. Alex Burden says:

    Excellent essay, I think you interacted really well with the central tenants of both anthropological lenses you used (the quotes from Geertz and Radcliffe-Brown in particular were really spot-on). I find it fascinating that scarification among the Dinka simultaneously works to stratify people, having close ties to distinctions of who is a leader, who is weak or strong, one’s role in society, etc. while simultaneously serving as a uniting element that distinguishes individuals as members of a certain clan. In many ways it seems to encompass the Dinka culture and its ideals as a whole rather than just a specific facet. It’s interesting to contrast views on scarification in the US- seeing it as something specific, representing self-harm and being mentally unfit- with views among the Dinka, where it’s representative of so many facets of life and society.

  21. I thought this was a very well written post. You did an excellent job of transitioning from one idea to the next and explaining how the different facets of this tradition are important to the Dinka people. It was interesting to read about how scarification is seen in a positive light as it plays such a pivotal role in the coming of age process, whereas in Western civilization similar forms of marking your body can sometimes be a limiting factor that is looked upon negatively in certain settings. It made me think of people that I know that got tattoos or piercings at a young age in order to express their independence and how different those decisions are from the necessary process of scarification that Dinka adolescents go through.

  22. Preston Herring says:

    This was a really cool essay. I have never heard of the Dinka tribe, and one of the main purposes of cultural anthropology is to learn about the other cultures of the world am I right? I have heard of many other tribes that also use pain as a way for men to transition into adulthood, so I’m glad that you went into detail and specifics about how they use pain and scarring. I also found it interesting that women also take part in the rituals. However, I’m left wondering about the specific tasks the “strong” people do and the specific tasks the “weak” people do. I felt you could have gone more in depth there. Also the overall structure of your essay could use some work. But it was a good read with some fascinating information about a culture I didn’t know anything about.

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