Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Human Ornamentation

  • Rachael CarmenEmail author
  • Haley Dillon
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_1894-1



The deliberate or purposeful additions to the human body/anatomy, including clothing choice, jewelry, and various forms of body modification.


Humans have always showed a propensity toward ornamenting ourselves. From an evolutionary perspective, ornamentation leads to unique gains in the mating market – allowing individuals the ability to bolster their appearance to potential partners by using environmental cues. Ornamentation can exist in a multitude of forms; clothing, jewelry, and even tattooing/piercing the body. Yet, all forms of ornamentation share one very important criterion in common: they are all cultural artifacts. Much of our evolutionary history has deep cultural roots across the world. The mechanisms of evolution shape many of our behavioral tendencies, including our capacity for culture and cultural artifacts (i.e., the way we ornament ourselves).

In the time long before written record, we made relics of elaborate adornments, hinting at an interesting unfolding of development within our uniquely human psyche. Before the Phoenician’s paved the way for modern language, humans were already pro’s at creating ways to ornament ourselves; each culture (and various subpopulations within) unique, with types and levels of ornamentation varying in permanence. The headdresses of Native American’s, the armor of a samurai, the makeup of a geisha, the stacking neck rings of numerous cultures, and full-body tattoos are just a few examples of the ubiquitous nature of body ornamentation. This human universal – the push to ornament oneself – is rooted in evolutionary theory. In proximate terms, it allows an individual to stand out in a crowd, and, depending on type of ornamentation, signal to a potential mate underlying fitness (in a way, it could be considered an extended phenotype). Nonpermanent forms of ornamentation like clothing have practical proximate outcomes: Ornamenting oneself in decorative clothing that either accentuates form or signals financial status can attract the attention of potential mates in a general sense. More permanent forms of ornamentation, like the neck-rings of the Padaung women, or full body tattoos not only promote uniqueness but also are a form of costly signaling. If an individual is able to successfully “pull off” a more permanent form of body ornamentation without any deleterious side effects, they are essentially self-handicapping (Zahavi and Zahavi 1997). This will be further expanded upon in the body modification section.

The Conscious Ape

At the heart of our complex system of body ornamentation lays a spark of consciousness that glows brighter than any other animals on Earth – including our closest living ancestors, the Chimpanzees. Our higher-order thinking quite obviously stems from their ancient thought processes, yet consciousness is something that had classically been considered uniquely human. Being able to be conscious of oneself (i.e., “have an identity”) and further, to understand that ones’ own experiences are different from the next person, has allowed humans to excel in ways that no other animal has before us. Yet, it is important to keep in mind that humans did not just wake up one day suddenly conscious of themselves; Evolutionary theory claims that in order for a structure to evolve, mechanisms will only build upon/shape lasting structures. Nonvocal forms of language within various types of great apes (especially chimpanzees) have been demonstrated many times over the past few decades (which hints at the idea of a common ancestral mechanism that was further shaped and built off of). This connection with symbolism (through language) arguably leads way to the idea of consciousness – which was classically thought of as a uniquely human attribute.

In 1977 Gallup Jr. demonstrated the bidirectional properties of consciousness in a sample of chimpanzees. Consciousness can be broken down into two streams: the outward stream (attention directed toward environment/surroundings) and the inward stream (the thought processes within your own mind) – hence, bidirectional. As many pet owners can attest, when cats and dogs are presented with their own reflection, they either do not seem to care at all or look into their reflection as if they are seeing another animal for the first time. In chimpanzees, this is not the case. Interestingly, recognizing your own reflection can indicate an evolutionary step in the formation of consciousness. When wildborn preadolescent chimpanzees were given access to mirrors, they were startled at first, but then began using the mirror to groom themselves in areas they could not normally see, or pick food out of their teeth – or even make faces at their reflection. After nearly 2 weeks of mirror exposure, the chimpanzees were anesthetized and a bright red mark was painted on their forehead. They recovered without a mirror in their cage, but once the mirror was re-introduced they immediately noticed and began touching the colored spot on their head, supporting the idea of self-awareness and essentially, a more simplistic form of consciousness in our closest ancestors. Unlike many other species (including many other primates), chimpanzees reacted to their own reflections and supported the idea that they hold part of the evolutionary building blocks that make up our consciousness. Human uniqueness is arguably due to our higher-order forms of consciousness, and through that form of consciousness, human ornamentation was born. As the most conscious animal on this planet, it should not be surprising that we display some of the most complex forms of ornamentation.

The Building Blocks of Human Ornamentation: Behavioral Modernity

As mentioned earlier, evolutionary theory teaches us that for any structure to evolve or become specialized, it must build off a more basic form. Essentially, the birth of symbolic thought is linked to our drive to ornament ourselves and thus, when we became truly “human” is when we began forming these symbols of our culture. Approximately 200,000 years ago anatomically modern homo sapiens were already roaming across much of the old world, yet, signs of modern human behavior did not emerge for another 150,000 years. According to “The Human Revolution” reconstruction of human evolution, anatomically modern Homo sapiens experienced an exceptional shift between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago that marked the birth of behavioral modernity (signs of behavioral modernity include planning ahead and effectively using/manipulating resources) (McBrearty and Brooks (2000). Some opponents of this model claim that modern human behavior was a structure that was slowly built upon, starting around 300,000 years ago and sculpted over hundreds of thousands of years. From this perspective, the transmission of cultural (and not genetic) processes over the course of many years is what eventually led to the culmination of behavioral modernity. Again, we see this strong link between body ornamentation and culture or cultural transmission. Yet, regardless of which model one ultimately sides with, we see a dovetail of modern human behavior and the birth of symbolic thought (along with body ornamentation).

Apart from the general idea of behavioral modernity, Theory of Mind is important to consider when attempting to understand human ornamentation from an evolutionary perspective. At a basic level, Theory of Mind is the ability to attribute mental states to not only oneself and others but to recognize that other individuals might not share the same views as you. Similar to the idea of consciousness, being able to effectively rationalize that I is separate from you can lead to evolutionary advantages that play out in the form of human ornamentation. If an individual is ornamenting themselves in ways that are considered “attractive” culturally and socially, they are taking in cues from their environment, processing them, and providing an output via ornamentation that will potentially increase their reproductive success (due to the ornamentation practices being seen as “attractive”).

Some of the earliest examples of body ornamentation are perforated shell beads found in Africa. These beads date back 150,000 years – after anatomically modern humans, but before the proposed shift to behavioral modernity. This early form of body ornamentation is a testament to the snowball effect of evolution; ornamentation was essentially once shells with holes and today takes a multitude of forms that can affect an individual’s phenotype on numerous levels (i.e., extended phenotype). Remember, a phenotype is typically explained in terms of being the physical expression (or output) of a genetic code. All living things are essentially vehicles for our genes: transporting them throughout the generations via sexual reproduction. Yet, the reach of our genes is not limited to our own bodies; it can actually extend out into the environment itself via behavioral manipulation (Dawkins 1999). Nonhuman examples include beaver dams and birds’ nests; human examples can include everything from clothing and houses to more extreme forms of ornamentation like piercing, tattooing, and scarification.

Group Membership

From an evolutionary perspective, human ornamentation is essentially used to increase the potential for reproductive fitness. One way to enhance reproductive fitness is via group membership. Since we are ultimately self-interested, the formation of groups was necessary in order to control various levels of coercive power within different populations. Ancestrally, we went from small communities that averaged approximately 150 individuals to living in cities with populations of over a million. As the population began to grow exponentially, ornamentation practices became more ornate and elaborate to meet the demands of large communities.

The Human Canvas and Upping the Ante

The evolutionary forces that nudged us into groups also encouraged the cultural behavioral output of human ornamentation. Though human ornamentation has many outputs, one of the most fascinating is tattooing due to its permanence. The human canvas hypothesis is based on the idea that our propensity for symbolic thought and our need to be unique from one another lead to an explosion of creativity that began on the walls of caves but eventually turned to our skin (Carmen et al. 2012). The subject matter and placement of a tattoo can either enhance or impede an individual’s likelihood of getting approached by a potential partner.

As populations began rising and healthcare became more advanced, ornamentation practices became more costly to meet this demand. In many cultures across the globe, we see tattooing and piercing in the general population. Because of large modern populations, individuals must up the ante in order to stand out to potential mates by means of costly signaling, often doing so via tattooing and piercing (Carmen et al. 2012). The more elaborate or specialized the tattoo or the more unique the piercing, the more costly and potentially attractive.

Of course, ornamentation is not typically permanent. In fact, it can often be used to signify a momentary emotional state or to enhance a specific feature depending on what an individual wishes to highlight, specifically when it comes to cosmetics. The type of ornamentation can vary drastically within and between cultures. Black pigment referred to as kohl was used as eyeliner in ancient Egypt and much of the Arab world. In India, Henna (dye) is used to make complex designs on the skin, outlining the fingers and highlighting certain areas of the wrist, and in Japan, geisha wore rice powder to paint their faces white. Cosmetics were used historically and cross culturally as a way to enhance appearance, ultimately aiding individuals in finding a mate.

Modern Ornamentation

In today’s society, cosmetics, clothing, tattooing, piercing, shoes, and hairstyles can all be ways in which individuals ornament themselves. Though some forms of ornamentation are “dishonest” in nature (think waist trainers, magnetized piercings, and spray tans), they are all momentary and can be removed in one way or another.

The plastic surgery industry prides itself on the quality of the (mostly permanent) ornamentation it provides to individuals. If people are unhappy with the way they look, they can change their phenotype if they have the cash to pay for it. A few years ago, there was a case in China where a man sued his wife for essentially having unpleasant looking children. It turns out that she apparently had plastic surgery prior to their marriage that he was unaware of, and their children looked like the mother’s genotype, not her current phenotype. Plastic surgery is perhaps the most extreme yet discrete example of body ornamentation. Of course, there are many forms of body modification that are considerably extreme, but individuals that commit to these acts are often fully committed in that everyone knows they are. If plastic surgery is done well, no one will know (that is, unless they reproduce and their offspring look drastically different from them).


Body ornamentation has many faces in many cultures across the world and across time. As complex animals, we have always had a propensity to ornament ourselves in increasingly novel ways. As we grow and learn, it will only be a matter of time until we find new ways to ornament ourselves, though, ultimately, we will always use an ancient algorithm to push us forward.



  1. Carmen, R. A., Guitar, A. E., & Dillon, H. M. (2012). Ultimate answers to proximate questions: The evolutionary motivations behind tattoos and body piercings in popular culture. Review of General Psychology, 16(2), 134–143.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  5. Zahavi, A., & Zahavi, A. (1997). The handicap principle: A missing piece of Darwin’s puzzle. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Marist CollegePoughkeepsieUSA
  2. 2.Dominican CollegeOrangeburgUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Gary L Brase
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Psychological SciencesKansas State UniversityManhattanUSA