Lip plate

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Lip plate
Mursi woman with lip plate (2014)
NicknamesLabret, lip plate, lip disc
JewelryClay, wood or metal disc

The lip plate, also known as a lip plug, lip disc, or mouth plate, is a form of body modification. Increasingly large discs (usually circular, and made from clay or wood) are inserted into a pierced hole in either the upper or lower lip, or both, thereby stretching it. The term labret denotes all kinds of pierced-lip ornaments, including plates and plugs.

Archaeological evidence indicates that disk and plate labrets have been invented multiple times including in Africa (Sudan and Ethiopia; 5500–6000 BC)[1] Mesoamerica (1500 BC),[1] and coastal Ecuador (500 BC).[1][2]

Usage in Africa[edit]

Contemporary Mursi woman showing pierced lower lip without a lip plate

In some African countries, a lower lip plate is usually combined with the dental extraction of two lower front teeth, sometimes all four. Among the Sara people and Lobi of Chad, a plate is also inserted into the upper lip. Other tribes, such as the Makonde of Tanzania and Mozambique, used to wear a plate in the upper lip only.

Many sources have suggested that the plate's size was a sign of social or economical importance in some tribes.[citation needed] However, because of natural mechanical attributes of human skin, the plate's size may often depend on the stage of stretching of the lip and the wishes of the wearer.


Mursi woman wearing a lip plate in Ethiopia

Among the Surma and Mursi people of the lower Omo River valley in Ethiopia,[3] about 6 to 12 months before marriage, a young woman has her lip pierced by her mother or one of her kinswomen, usually at around the age of 15 to 18. The initial piercing is done as an incision of the lower lip of 1 to 2 cm length, and a simple wooden peg is inserted. After the wound has healed, which usually takes between two and three weeks, the peg is replaced with a slightly bigger one. At a diameter of about 4 cm, the first lip plate made of clay is inserted. Every woman crafts her own plate and takes pride in including some ornamentation. The final diameter ranges from about 8 cm to over 20 cm.[4]

In 1990 Beckwith and Carter claimed that for Mursi and Surma women, the size of their lip plate indicates the number of cattle paid as the bride price.[5] Anthropologist Turton, who studied the Mursi for 30 years, denies this.[6] LaTosky, meanwhile, argues that most Mursi women use lip plates, and the value of the ornamentation lies within a discourse of female strength and self-esteem.[7]

In contemporary culture, most girls of age 13 to 18 appear to decide whether or not to wear a lip plate. This adornment has caused the Mursi and Surma women to be treated as if they are a tourist attraction.[8]

The largest lip plate recorded was in Ethiopia, measuring 59.5 cm (23.4 in) in circumference and 19.5 cm (7.6 in) wide, in 2014. It belongs to Ataye Eligidagne.[9]

Usage in the Americas[edit]

Raoni Metuktire, a Kayapo man, speaking at the Brazilian Commission on Human Rights and Participatory Legislation

In South America among some Amazonian tribes, young males traditionally have their lips pierced and begin to wear plates when they enter the men's house and leave the world of women.[10][11] Lip plates there are associated with oration and singing.[citation needed] The largest plates are worn by the greatest orators and war chiefs,[citation needed] such as Chief Raoni of the Kayapo tribe, a well known environmental campaigner. In South America, lip plates are nearly always made from light wood.

In the Pacific Northwest of North America, labrets have a long history of use, dating back at least five thousand years. At times they were used by both men and women, but in more recent times (e.g. 19th century) were associated with exclusive use by high ranking women.[12] Among the Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit, they were once used by women to symbolize social maturity by indicating a girl's eligibility to be a wife.[citation needed] The installation of a girl's first plate was celebrated with a sumptuous feast.[13]

In western nations, some young people, including some members of the Modern Primitive movement, have adopted larger-gauge lip piercings, a few large enough for them to wear proper lip plates. Some examples are given on the BME website.[14][15]

Health concern[edit]

This practice can lead to infections, especially during the process of perforation. It also complicates normal mouth functions such as salivating and eating. Gum irritation can also arise as consequence from plate rubbing, leading to related gum diseases and infections. Teeth gapping and erosion could happen as well.

For this reason, the Ethiopian government has put pressure on suppressing the practice.[16]

List of traditional wearers[edit]

Young Haida woman with lip plate, portrayed in Dixon, George (1789): Voyage autour du monde

Tribes that are known for their traditional lip plates or labrets include:

  • The Mursi and Surma (Suri) women of Ethiopia
  • The Sara women of Chad (ceased wearing plates in the 1920s)
  • The Makonde of Tanzania and Mozambique (ceased wearing plates several decades ago)
  • The Suyá men of Brazil (most no longer wear plates)
  • The Botocudo of coastal Brazil (in previous centuries, both sexes wore plates)
  • Aleut, Inuit and other indigenous peoples of Northern Canada, Alaska and surrounding regions also wore large labrets; these practices had mostly ceased by the twentieth century.
  • Some tribes (Zo'e in Brazil, Guarani, Tupi, and Chiriguano. Nuba in Sudan, Lobi in West Africa) wear stretched-lip ornaments that are plug- or rod-shaped rather than plate-shaped known as tembetá.[17]

Ubangi misnomer[edit]

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, African women wearing lip plates were brought to Europe and North America for exhibit in circuses and sideshows. Around 1930, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey promoted such women from the French Congo as members of the "Ubangi" tribe; the Ringling press agent admitted that he picked that name from a map for its exotic sound.[18] The word Ubangi was still given a definition as an African tribe in 2009 in some English-language dictionaries.[19] The word was used in this way in the 1937 Marx Brothers film A Day at the Races.


  1. ^ a b c Keddie, Grant (August 1989). "Symbolism and Context: The world history of the labret and cultural diffusion on the Pacific Rim" (PDF). Seattle: Circum-Pacific Prehistory Conference. Retrieved 21 October 2018.
  2. ^ Frayer, David; Nava, Alessia; Tartaglia, Gianna; Vidale, Massimo; Coppa, Alfredo; Bondioli, Luca (30 June 2020). "Evidence for labret use in prehistory". Bulletin of the International Association for Paleodontology. 14 (1): 1–23. ISSN 1846-6273.
  3. ^ "Mursi Online". Retrieved 21 October 2018.
  4. ^ Beckwith, Carol; Fisher, Angela (1996). "The eloquent Surma". National Geographic. 179 (2): 77‒99.
  5. ^ Beckwith, Carol; Carter, Angela (1990). African Ark: People and Ancient Cultures of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. Collins Harvill. p. 251.
  6. ^ "Lip-plates". Mursi Online. Retrieved 21 October 2018.
  7. ^ LaTosky, Shauna (2006). Strecker, Ivo; Lydall, Jean (eds.). "Reflections on the lip-plates of Mursi women as a source of stigma and self-esteem" (PDF). Perils of Face: Essays on Cultural Contact, Respect and Self-esteem in Southern Ethiopia. Berlin: Lit Verlag: 382‒397. Retrieved 21 October 2018.
  8. ^ Turton, David (2004). "The people who take photographs". Anthropology Today. pp. 3–8. Retrieved 21 October 2018.
  9. ^ Glenday, Craig (2015). Guinness Book of World Records 2016. Guinness World Records Limited. p. 60. ISBN 9781910561010.
  10. ^ "Kĩsêdjê: Body Ornaments". Povos Indígenas no Brasil. Retrieved 21 October 2018.
  11. ^ Seeger, Anthony (July 1975). "The Meaning of Body Ornaments: A Suya Example". Ethnology. 14 (3): 211–224. doi:10.2307/3773253. JSTOR 3773253.
  12. ^ La Salle, Marina (21 January 2014). "Labrets and their social context in coastal British Columbia". BC Studies. e180 (Winter 13/14). Retrieved 16 September 2019.
  13. ^ Jonaitis, Aldona (1988). "Women, Marriage, Mouths and Feasting: The Symbolism of Tlingit Labrets". In Rubin, Arnold (ed.). Marks of Civilization: Artistic Transformations of the Human Body. Museum of Cultural History. pp. 191–205. ISBN 9780930741136.
  14. ^ Ginsberg, Jordan (3 February 2005). "Have Mursi! Lip Plates Have Reached The West". Body Modification Ezine. Retrieved 21 October 2018.
  15. ^ "Photos of small lip plates]". Body Modification Ezine. Retrieved 21 October 2018.
  16. ^ "Surma tribes lip plates for Mursi Tribe and Suri Tribe in the Omo Valley Ethiopia". 24 September 2021.
  17. ^ "Los aritos eran gritos de guerra en las comunidades indígenas." Sociedad Rio Negro. 20 Jan 2002. Retrieved 17 March 2012. (in Spanish)
  18. ^ Nickell, Joe (2005). Secrets of the Sideshows. The University Press of Kentucky. p. 189. ISBN 9780813123585. Retrieved 21 October 2018.
  19. ^ Ubangi. Random House, Inc. Retrieved 21 October 2018. {{cite encyclopedia}}: |work= ignored (help)

Relevant literature[edit]

  • LaTosky, Shauna. "Lip plates." In The River: Peoples and Histories of the Omo-Turkana Area, edited by Timothy Clack and Marcus Brittain, pp. 87-91. Achaeopress, 2018.

External links[edit]

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