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What is the History of Wearing Copper Rings around the Neck in Africa?

The old custom of wearing copper rings is still a common practice in several parts of Africa. These copper neck rings are worn by African people for several reasons, and these reasons are peculiar to each tribe. However, the most common purpose is to create the illusion of neck elongation. 

Body modification is a part of several cultures; for example, tattoos, piercings, skull flattening, and foot binding. However, wearing copper rings on the neck for neck elongation is one of the most archaic body modification customs in the world. Now, let’s talk about its origin, status symbols, and the influence of copper neck rings on the wearer’s lives.

The Origin of Neck Rings in Africa 

Ndebele_women

African tribes are famous for their strange and unusual ceremonies and customs, and wearing copper rings around the neck is one of them. However, the custom is not bound to the African tribes only, but it is also pretty common among several Asian and Indian tribes. 

For several years, neck rings have been a part of the African and Asian tribes. This ancient practice is still accepted widely. 

In South Africa, the Ndebele tribe is famous for its tradition of wearing copper rings around the neck. In the Ndebele tribe, only women wear these rings; the rings are not only worn around the neck but also on their arms and legs. These rings are made of copper or brass, and the men give them to their female partners. 

Women wear these rings as a symbolic seal of faithfulness towards their male partners. The copper rings are only removed from the women’s bodies after they die.

Historical Purpose of Neck Rings 

As we mentioned earlier, the custom of neck rings is also common in some Asian tribes. These include the tribes of Myanmar. Folklore in Myanmar says that the people wore neck rings to keep their necks safe from tiger attacks. As tigers directly attack the neck, this custom might have evolved from a safety precaution. 

The folklore that is passed down among the African tribes is different from the Asian version. In African tribes, it is believed that women were made to wear these rings to reduce their beauty. According to their folklore, the neck rings made the women look ugly so the men from other tribes wouldn’t kidnap them. However, this version seems illogical because the neck rings now exemplify beauty instead of making women look ugly.

Traditional Methods Used to Create Copper Neck Rings

The process starts with choosing the materials. Copper is the main material used to make these neck bands. It is known for being easy to shape, long-lasting, and symbolic. Artists usually use high-quality copper to make sure the rings last a long time and look good. This choice is very important because it sets the stage for the whole process of creation.

The process of melting and polishing copper starts as soon as the copper is chosen. In this important step, copper is heated until it melts and then it is cleaned to get rid of any flaws. In traditional settings, this process involves the use of simple, locally-sourced tools. The artisans’ expertise in handling these tools is essential in achieving the desired purity and quality of the copper.

The next step is to forge and shape the copper after it has been prepared. Copper is heated until it is soft, and then it is hammered into the length and thickness that the artist wants. This shape step is very important for how the neck ring will look and fit in the end. The skill with which the craftsmen hammer and shape the copper is a sign of their skill and an important part of the custom.

A lot of thought goes into the design and decoration of copper neck rings as well. Not only are these rings useful, but they also often have complicated designs and patterns that show how the community expresses itself culturally and artistically.

Another important step is annealing. By using this method of heat treatment, the metal becomes more flexible and less hard, which makes it easier to shape and detail. This step is very important for finding the right mix between how long the ring will last and how nice it looks.

As a final touch, the rings are polished to make the surface smooth and shiny. This not only makes the ring look better, but it also keeps the metal from rusting. The shine that is used is an important part of how the neck ring looks as a whole.

Finally, it is very important to make sure the ring fits and is adjusted correctly for the person who will be wearing it. Making sure these rings fit perfectly and comfortably is very important because they hold a lot of cultural and personal meaning. To make the last few changes, the metal has to be carefully bent, which is a delicate process that needs skill and a deep understanding of how the metal works.

The Status Symbols Related to Neck Rings 

Among the African tribes, neck rings hold a symbolic status. Some tribes wear them as a symbol of higher status, while others simply wear them to indicate a woman’s faithfulness towards her male partner. The rest believe that the neck rings intensify the beauty by creating the illusion of neck elongation. 

The neck rings are copper or brass coils that are changed with newer ones as the neck elongates. In African tribes, girls as young as five years old wear neck rings; as they grow older, the smaller rings are replaced with bigger ones to prevent choking and create more space. These rings can even weigh up to 10 kilograms.

Do The Neck Rings Actually Elongate the Neck? 

Even though one can see the long necks of the women who wear copper rings around their necks, the rings don’t really elongate the neck. The long neck covered with neck rings is nothing but an illusion. This is because it is impossible to stretch the neck more than its natural length. Even if someone succeeds in stretching the neck beyond its length, they will probably end up suffering from paralysis. 

The neck rings create the illusion of a long neck by pushing the collar bone and ribs of the wearer in the downward direction. However, there is a side effect to this strange practice: the weakening of the neck muscles.

Can a Neck Ring Wearer Live Normally?

No, it is impossible for a person who has so many copper rings around her neck to have a normal lifestyle. With the rings in the neck, the wearer can’t lean her head back; neither can she drink any liquids directly from a tumbler. The only way to consume any drinks with a traditional neck ring is through a straw. 

In most African areas, the temperature can go very high. Such high temperatures can cause the copper or brass rings to become hot and cause skin damage. To prevent chafing, wearers need to place fabric between the rings and their skin. The neck elongation also affects the vocal cords, and the wearer later ends up having a deeper voice.

The Custom of Wearing Neck Rings in Myanmar 

As we mentioned earlier, African tribes weren’t alone in practicing the tradition of neck rings. Some Asian tribes also follow strange and unusual ceremonies and customs, including that of neck rings. In Myanmar, there is a tribe named Kayan Lahwi where the women still wear copper rings around their necks. Like the African tribes, the Kayan girls also start wearing neck rings from a very young age. 

The neck rings worn by the Kayan women are a little different from the African ones. The Kayan women tie colorful ribbons, laces, or beads with their neck rings as they believe that it increases the beauty and elegance of their neck rings. 

When the Burmese military took over Burma, they tried to eliminate this strange tradition. However, these people were so attached to this custom that they fled to Thailand to save this tradition (among other reasons).

Neck Rings in the Modern World

The tradition of wearing neck rings is still practiced today; however, women tend to remove these rings regularly. They might only wear their neck rings for traditional ceremonies or special occasions. When it’s time to eat, drink, or rest, they can easily remove the neck rings for their convenience. As a result, the rings don’t cause as much structural damage to the body as the fixed rings did. Moreover, the rings are not as thick as they used to be. In contrast, some modern tribal people have left the tradition of wearing neck rings completely. 

Other than the traditional use of neck rings, they have become a symbol of elegance and beauty. Some women often wear them to show off their long necks.

Fashion Trends Inspired By Traditional Neck Rings

There have been several fashion trends that involved wearing necklaces that were inspired by the African and Asian copper/brass neck rings. Some of these include:

  • Chokers: Choker necklaces might be made of metal or plastic. They might be plain or have designs on them, including traditional tribal symbols.
  • Layered Neckpieces: Many fashion enthusiasts layer necklaces with their outfits, choosing pieces with different styles and lengths. They might also add a cultural touch by including necklaces made of brass, copper, or some other polished metal. There are several ways to layer and stack jewelry, so we should experiment and see what suits our current look the most.
  • Bohemian Necklaces: Certain necklaces have ethnic or bohemian styles, which are inspired by the traditional neck rings.
  • Statement Jewelry: Traditional neck rings might have been uncomfortable, but they were definitely eye-catching. Following this custom, we can choose large, bold statement jewelry pieces to snazz up our outfits. These can tie a look together and serve as an attention-grabbing addition to our wardrobe.

When we’re choosing jewelry pieces inspired by neck rings, it’s important to maintain some cultural sensitivity. We may not always agree with the practice of neck rings or lip stretching, but they are part of certain cultural practices. While it’s possible to take inspiration from such looks, we should remain respectful of the culture behind them.

Conclusion

Although these customs may seem unusual and bizarre to us, they are normal for those who practice them. With modernity taking over the world, most people know that neck elongation is nothing but a useless and unrealistic beauty standard. This is why only a very few tribes still practice this custom while most other tribes have stopped practicing such customs.

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