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The Significance of Lip-Plates Among African Tribes

Quite a few African tribes commonly indulge in body modifications like inserting lip plates, also known as lip plug or disc.

This modification is done by inserting increasingly large discs, usually circular, and made from clay or wood, into a pierced hole in either the upper or lower lip, or both.

Archaeological evidence indicates that these pierced lip-ornaments have been independently invented no fewer than six times, in Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia (8700 BC), Mesoamerica (1500 BC), and coastal Ecuador (500 BC). Today, the custom is maintained by a few groups in Africa and some parts of South America.


One of such groups is the Mursi tribe or Mun as they refer to themselves.  They are a Nilotic pastoralist ethnic group in Ethiopia that principally resides in the Debub Omo Zone of the Southern Nations. Surrounded by mountains between the Omo River and its tributary the Mago, the home of the Mursi is one of the most isolated regions of the country.

Women of the Mursi tribe may have their lips cut at the age of 15 or 16 after which a small clay plate is then inserted into the lip. Through the years, larger plates are inserted into the lip causing it to stretch; the larger the clay plate, the more the woman is worth before she gets married.

Although very unique and part of their tradition, the Mursi women only wear the plates for a short time because they are so heavy and uncomfortable.

Furthermore, it was said that this practice was first carried out to make the indigenes look ugly when Arab merchants continually raided their villages in search of slaves. That explanation has been rejected as studies reveal that the plates are a symbol or expression of social status.

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