Sunday, February 13, 2022

Where I Work: Tattoo Anthropologist

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Society, Culture, History of Science, Nature of Science

Ed Hessler

The naturebriefing series from Nature, often include a feature I like, entitled "Where I Work." These are about the places where scientists of all kinds work and always include a photograph of the scientist at work, in the field or laboratory. Furthermore, they include a variety of scientists and interests. And the stories are well told and short.

This one is about anthropologist Lars Krutak who works "to document, preserve and interpret a neglected part of cultural heritage." He writes this about the accompanying photograph. "In this picture taken in November 2019, I take notes as Chen-o Khuzuthrupa, a centenarian nobleman of the Chen tribe of northeastern India, describes a tattoo on his back: a sacred tiger familiar spirit. He received the tattoo — a tiger stripe motif with circles that represent the spirit — during an elaborate ceremony in the 1930s, when he was a young headhunter and warrior. He says the markings gave him a tiger’s strength in battle and the ability to spy on his enemies in his dreams. Those powers are gone. He lost the connection to the tiger spirit decades ago when he converted to Christianity."

Krutak includes some comments about reasons that young people in these villages often mark themselves with modern tattoo designs, unaware of the designs of their ancestors. Sadly he notes that even if they were aware "the culture and context around" these designs is lost, the "original artist is long dead, and nobody remembers the prayers, songs and other aspects of the tattooing ceremony."

Krutak made the book he wrote in 2010, Kalinga Tattoo, available to villages in the area from which he collected the stories and images."


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